“Fake news”, like “Russian aggression”, is one of those terms I hear thrown around often but never adequately defined.
One particular argument says that the definition of “fake news” is determined by intent; that a journalist who publishes false information unintentionally cannot be accused of spreading fake news. The implication is that “intent” is always honorable at “real” news agencies. But even assuming it is, is good intent really enough?
How does one address, within this framework, instances of pure irresponsibility and lazy journalism, such as what eventually led WaPo to retract its “bombshell” (but entirely false) Dec. 30 story about Russians hacking into a VT electricity grid, or led to the resignation of three CNN journalists on June 26th? What about the curious trend of major U.S. media outlets publishing claims about the Russia Threat that turn out to be false – always in the direction of exaggerating the Threat or inventing incriminating links between Trump and Russia; often treating evidence-free assertions from anonymous sources as the Gospel Truth?
Of course journalists make mistakes, but this type of Russia reporting happens a little too often nowadays for it to be entirely coincidental. Under the intent-based definition of “fake news”, sensational and misleading reporting from mainstream U.S. media would sooner be dismissed as “newsroom economics” than charged with any political incentive or ideology. You see, because we, The Good American Traditional Media™ don’t do those type of things. That’s what They™ do.
Doesn’t this sound at least somewhat odd?
A “fake news” definition that cannot include mainstream media only serves to shield those organizations from scrutiny. It encourages readers and viewers to simply trust some organizations (and they’ll be sure to tell you which ones) rather than examine all reports with a critical eye.
And at the end of the day, whether the piece is from The New York Times or a teen killing time on his laptop, the result is the same: a lot of people come away believing false information to be true. That’s the underlying issue at hand – and one that is not solved by self-righteousness or making excuses.
So there must be another definition.
The debate over what does and does not constitute fake news rages on. In the meantime, you won’t hear me using the term “fake news” anywhere on my site – except in this very post.