Francis Campbell: If it’s false or fake don’t call it news

  • April 16, 2019

Fake news. The term is bandied about almost daily and has quickly grown tired and annoying.

Actually, from its introduction, the wording has always rung hollow and contradictory, an oxymoron that just won’t fade away.

Having worked on daily newspapers for more than three decades, the task has consistently been to provide news and information to readers. Fake news is simply an impossibility.

For people in this business, news is a sacred trust. An implicit contract is forged between the people who gather and produce the news and those who consume it and rely on it.

Commitment and accuracy from those who report the news is essential. Without a commitment to dig deep and uncover all the pertinent information and to share the story with readers with fairness, integrity and accuracy, the contract becomes null and void.

Writers and editors are human and mistakes are made in news copy but they are the bane of good reporters’ existence. Competent reporters wear the simplest of errors like a cloak of shame.

In the minds of these dedicated news gatherers, countless numbers of whom I have known over the years and others whose contributions I have admired from afar, fake news does not exist. If it is fake, it is not news.

News is the sharing, publishing or broadcasting of information not previously known to the public. It is new and that’s what makes it news. Reporters take stories already out there and find other unpublished angles to create yet more news.

Misinformation is not news. It’s a lie, deception or an attempt to mislead that is circulated for some nefarious purpose.

The term fake news was unleashed some three years ago in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Web sites, many of them registered outside of the United States, produced fictional stories presented as if they were true. The goal was to monetize the fake content by distributing it on social media platforms, particularly Facebook.

After the election, new president Donald Trump adopted the fake news phrase as his own. Before his inauguration, Trump responded to a question from Jim Acosta of CNN by saying, “you’re fake news.”

Trump’s interpretation of fake news is any reporting that does not flatter or portray him in a positive light. The reporting may be impeccable, 100-per-cent accurate and presented brilliantly, but if it isn’t positive for the president, Trump calls it fake news.

The Trump team even came up with a new term for outright lies, including the obviously false claim that the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration made it the largest inauguration in history. Trump’s people called that “alternative facts.” But a fact is a fact and the alternative is a lie.

Thankfully, the “alternative facts” phrase fizzled, but the fake news term remains popular.

Since becoming popular, the fake news term also has taken on other meanings. It is now used to characterize partisan spin and to describe sponsored content that is often passed off as news. With the term acquiring several different interpretations, it is becoming meaningless. I maintain it didn’t mean anything in the first place.

Now, Pope Francis has joined the fake news fray. He wrote recently that our culture is losing the sense of what truth means as facts are skewed to suit particular interests.

He said huge economic interests operating in the digital world can exercise forms of control that can manipulate consciences and the democratic process. The Pope said social networks encourage interaction among like-minded people, closed circuits that “facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate.”

The Pope is no doubt correct about false information inciting prejudice and hate, but spreading deliberately false information is not news, fake or otherwise. An exaggeration is an exaggeration, a lie is a lie and whatever is fake or false is not news.

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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