Some Americans seem to think that when President Trump talks about “fake news,” he’s talking nonsense. He’s not. It really exists. Fake news and biased media are, like Hollywood’s sex craze, nothing new.
The reason issues such as these receive so much attention today is that modern media make it possible for such “news” to reach an online audience extremely quickly. Thus, the general public is capable of obtaining, digesting, and commenting on the statements released by news outlets at an alarmingly rapid rate.
Fake news is “old news.” It’s not some new ill practice applied to journalism exclusively in the 21st century. It also happens on a daily basis. We’ve seen examples of it throughout history, particularly in the ancient world and the Middle Ages. Those of wealth, position, and power have frequently been able to have historical documents tweaked in their favor, however, it should please them. Scribes employed by royalty of old were sometimes instructed to alter of simply exclude certain story elements. They would bend the facts. And much more recently, yellow journalism rose and raged in its heyday in the late 1800’s.
The renowned author C.S. Lewis even touched upon the existence of fake news in his 1958 analysis Reflections on the Psalms. “We hear it said again and again that the editor of some newspaper is a rascal,” he says. The Christian writer goes on to state that people “will not even stop buying the rascally newspaper, thus paying the owner for the lies, the detestable intrusions upon private life and private tragedy, the blasphemies and the pornography.”
When writing a factual news story, the journalist ought to distance himself from relation to the piece. Unless the story is written as an opinion piece, the good and knowledgeable writer should filter out all bias. That said, journalism comes with parameters to be followed by its creators. With the great influence that the actions in the news have on society and culture, those who write the news have a hefty responsibility.
Photojournalists perhaps have a stricter set of codes to adhere to. James G. Stovall, professor of journalism and author of several informative books on the subject of writing, discusses some of these guidelines in his 2009 textbook Writing for the Mass Media. Stovall says, “while being committed to telling the truth, photojournalists must be sensitive to situations and people where there may be” elements of gore, embarrassment of individuals, stereotyping, criminality, and sexuality. These ethics would be well applied to journalism as a whole.
Some web publications (The Onion, for example) actually include fake news columns – mainly for gags. Nevertheless, these comical yarns sit right next to what readers may take to be genuinely well-researched articles. These two drastically different types of stories are sometimes hosted on the same site. This is a minor example depicting the most blatant form of fake news. Perhaps pieces such as those published on The Onion could be considered the least harmful type of fake news (if there is such a type).
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the web supports countless platforms for statements to be displayed. All platforms, however, are not reliable sources for cold, hard facts. Thus, the reader who dwells online, for the most part, is at risk. Such a reader ought to be careful what he or she takes as true and false and to recognize the difference. Bias and outright lies add to this frustrating dilemma of reliability.