“Fake news,” a scare tactic popularized by Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, has taken on a completely different meaning than what the phrase meant prior to that election cycle. A Monmouth University poll conducted in the spring of 2018 indicated that the majority of Americans do not believe fake news to be the spread of incorrect facts, but rather the “editorial decisions outlets make over what topics to cover” (Politico). It should also be noted that the same aforementioned poll revealed that the majority of Americans believe that “interest groups” are planting stories on social media that are fake. This is troubling because it means that Americans do not understand the separation between social media – apps which have no responsibility towards correctly informing citizens – and official news outlets.
This fake news mindset, political parties aside, is particularly dangerous for news outlets and harms journalists’ mission of informing citizens.
While the 2016 election might have further divided news outlets and forced them to more explicitly choose sides, news outlets have always leaned one way or another politically. It has also been long-established that journalists intentionally cover topics that would be most pertinent to their specific audience. Where does this misunderstanding of “fake news” come from and how could it be improved?
It has also been long-established that journalists intentionally cover topics that would be most pertinent to their specific audience. Where does this misunderstanding of “fake news” come from and how could it be improved?
The foremost contributing factor to Americans’ beratement of the news system is a lack of awareness of the history and processes that guide today’s media. With the exception of those who have taken journalism courses at some point in their education, Americans are not familiar with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Specifically, journalists who are ethical should “hold those with power accountable”, “support the open and civil exchange of views”, and “encourage… dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.” The public is not aware of these codes and is also largely unaware of said practices – indicating a lack of education that both citizens and journalists should take responsibility for.
If more people were aware of the ways that outlets like MSNBC or FOX selected their coverage and produced their stories, they would, at the very least, understand how to question the system in ways that are productive. This stance would be an improvement over the current popular method of throwing out wild accusations of fake news. Those “with power” should be especially vigilant about journalistic processes. These people could set a positive example for what a proactive citizen looks like by asking genuine questions about why a certain story was selected or why unsettling facts were published.