How to avoid the pitfalls of fake news

Fake News

f all the developments after the election, one of the most interesting to me is this fascination with fake news. People wring their hands in worry, blaming fake news for everything from Trump’s victory to climate change skepticism. Fake news is now a hot-button topic that everybody cares about, Facebook even allows users to report posts as fake news.
Fake news is nothing new, lies in media have been around for as long as media has been around. People know this but it’s not until fake news can be blamed for something they don’t like happening that they start caring about it.

One thing that can’t be debated is that fake news is dangerous. Major news outlets are the only source of information for the majority of the public. People do what the news tells them to do and they think what the news tells them to think. This is often a very good thing, people can be warned of impending storms or health issues and are given valuable time to prepare.
When the news lies, the result is often disastrous. One of the most notable examples to me is the 2004 invasion of Iraq supported by a public who believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Over a decade later and we’re still at war with thousands of deaths in combat and unfathomable damage done to the veterans coming home. The entire region has been destabilized and a great deal of the blame lies squarely on the invasion. I don’t have a crystal ball but I think if people were told the truth, support for the invasion may not have been as strong. It could have all been avoided if the media didn’t help spread lies.

There is one and only one way to avoid the danger of fake news, and that is to not take what the news says at face value. People consume news because they are too lazy to form their own opinions. Who would want to go through all the work of researching topics and learning background information to form an opinion when a friendly talking head can just decide what opinions ought to be held?

News media is a shortcut. The main problem is that the goal of major news outlets is not to print unbiased, researched, balanced articles that give a detached view of what is going on. The goal of major news outlets is to make money, and the only way to do that is to give the people what they want – and people want to be told what to think.

Small, independent news outlets may not be primarily seeking profit but they still suffer from reporting what they think people ought to believe. Bias in media is apparent everywhere, from conspiracy-focused Infowars to utterly insane NaturalNews articles that claim simple spices will cure cancer and that the source of all disease is conventionally farmed food.

The only kind of news outlet that can be trusted is one whose single overriding goal is to be balanced, unbiased, fair and honorable. I love being a copy editor because I get say over what is printed and can remove any sort of opinion or slant in a factual article. However, there’s zero reason for anybody to trust what I’m saying. My saying that I am all about being fair and balanced is exactly as meaningful as Fox news or CNN saying that they are fair and balanced. The evidence is in the articles and it’s up to the readers to hold their source of news to a high standard.

Sadly, people are biased. Trump fans call favorable reporting on Hillary fake news, and Democrats call anything leaning to the right fake news. People have more interest in their feelings and being told what they want to hear than they do confronting their own bias.

News will be unaccountable for as long as people don’t care about how unbiased their news is. The only thing that will ever hold news media accountable is a public who demands unbiased reporting. Until a shift in public demand happens – if it ever happens – individuals need to do their research using primary sources. Ironically enough, the old journalistic proverb will serve individuals well: Trust but verify.