Journalism

News Isn’t ‘Fake News’ Just Because You Don’t Like the Facts

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If there’s one thing people will remember the Trump presidency for, it’s the accusations of ‘fake news’ against any reports he didn’t like.

Donald Trump did not invent the term fake news. I know that might shock you.

In fact, Insider reports that a Buzzfeed news media editor popularized it two years before Trump took office. Craig Silverman, the site states, used the term when he found “a cluster of foreign websites printing outrageous, untrue headlines about American politics in order to generate revenue via clicks on Facebook.”

Once Trump took office, he embraced the term. He criticized all of the major outlets whenever they published reports that criticized him, his policies or his administration.

Trump spoke harshly of the news media at all of his rallies, encouraging his supporters to jeer at reporters. Trump would always claim they never covered this or that, the whole time those journalists were there, covering him.

He branded the press “enemies of the people.”

His rhetoric fired up his supporters. Journalists faced covering protests in which they themselves might be considered “soft targets.”

No president who claims to value the First Amendment should ever make such a statement.

Going forward, the media must deal with ‘The Big Lie’

There are Trump supporters — and Trump himself, of course — who sincerely believe Democrats stole the 2020 election. Trump warned of voter fraud before Election Day and maintained that claim into the new year.

I have no doubt he genuinely believes it.

But so far, his team has not proved it. One of the tenets of our justice system is that one remains innocent until prosecutors prove them guilty. The charges of voter fraud remain unproven.

That’s why Joe Biden became president.

That does not mean, however, that the claims of a stolen election — media analysts call it “the big lie — will evaporate.

Media columnist Margaret Sullivan says journalists “who take their core mission seriously” should “think hard” about how they’ll confront it. In The Washington Post, she lists three ways they can do so.

TVNewsCheck columnist Harry Jessel writes a similar OpEd about how television broadcasters can confront that lie.

Both argue the language journalists use should call it what it is.

Sullivan, for example, argues terms like “baseless claims” or “without evidence” aren’t enough. She then gives an example of a Washington Post report she says details the situation:

By mid-December, President Trump’s fraudulent claims of a rigged election were failing in humiliating fashion. Lawsuits were being laughed out of courts. State officials, including Republicans, were refusing to bend to his will and alter the vote. And in a seemingly decisive blow on Dec. 14, the electoral college certified the win for Joe Biden.

Some Trump supporters might regard phrases like “laughed out of court” as biased. Even if that’s essentially exactly what happened, on the surface, those on one side might think it sounds as if it’s against their side.

Truth, however, doesn’t side one way or the other. Truth is what it is. We either side with it or against it, based on our own preconceived notions.

Jessell, meanwhile, reinforces that notion. He says TV news anchors and reporters should look up synonyms for unsubstantiated.

“And every time the charges of election fraud come up in connection with a news story, they should be sure to plug in one of the words,” he writes.

He acknowledges that some may bristle as such writing and think it’s a sign of bias — and thereby, fake news.

“If you are concerned that if you use adjectives you are taking sides, don’t be,” he insists. “You are simply affirming a well-established fact — Biden won the election fair and square.”

But some Trump supporters won’t see it that way. They never will.

A recent Associated Press article carries this headline: “EXPLAINER: Election claims, and why it’s clear Biden won”.

Its approach contains somewhat harsh, frank language. That’s exactly the kind of speaking for which Trump supporters applauded him. They didn’t want political correctness; they lauded him for, in their minds, his “telling it like it is.”

But as we all know, in politics, what’s good for the goose is rarely good for the gander.

The effort to drive the point home won’t.

That’s why sites like Parler gained such rapid popularity. Their critics argue they refuse to dispute false stories and even refuse to moderate calls for violence.

Mainstream sites that do moderate content based on their terms of service — which their members willingly agree to follow – get accused of censorship. Everything’s a “fake news” conspiracy.

And heaven help any site that attempts to actually fact-check. Those who disagree with the facts dismiss the fact-checker as being part of the conspiracy.

Someone once tried to criticize me for using a Snopes.com article to dispute a social media post. The person asked how I know where Snopes.com gets its information. But all you have to do is look at Snopes.com’s articles. They do a splendid job of attributing their sources.

But if you don’t care about the truth as much as you care about spouting falsehoods, citing sources becomes immaterial.

One of the best things about social media remains one of its worst. Social media gave more people a voice in the national conversation. We found out too late that some people can’t be responsible enough with that power.

Anyone who challenges someone else’s attempt becomes the villain. That’s true even if the challenger is trying to prevent the spread of false information.

And lest you think I’m only talking about one side of the political spectrum, think again.

Both sides do it. Both sides always have done it.

And until both sides value truth and integrity at equal levels, one side or the other — depending on who’s in charge — will always point fingers.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.