Before We Go Further, We Need A Consistent Definition of "Fake News"

Created: 13 February, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
6 min read
The state of media and journalism in the United States is in a dismal place. Trust in media hit an all-time low during the 2016 presidential election and it has not recovered. Trust in specific outlets tends to fall along partisan lines, as has the effort to expose "fake news."

People on the right accuse cable news networks like CNN and MSNBC, along with websites like Huffington Post of being fake. Liberals, on the other hand, point to sources like Fox News and Drudge Report.



The uproar over "fake news" was exacerbated during the 2016 presidential election and carried over when then President-elect Donald Trump did something no other president-elect had ever done in modern history during a January 11 press conference : He used the bully pulpit to go after the press.

One particular confrontation received extra attention after the press conference. Trump and CNN correspondent Jim Acosta got into a spat over claims the president-elect made about CNN's reporting of an unconfirmed Russian dossier, during which Trump pointed to Acosta and said, "you (read CNN) are fake news."

The statement rattled journalists nationwide so much that Shepard Smith, an anchor for CNN's biggest competitor, Fox News, defended CNN and Acosta live on his show.


The witch hunt that has ensued to weed out the culprits of "fake news" has gotten out of hand, and while some reporters have called for unity in the field, others have joined the finger pointing in an effort to divert blame away from themselves to alternative news sites that have become greater competitors in the Internet age.

It is important for both the protection of the Fourth Estate (the free press) and the American public to identify sources of fake news and appropriately inform voters, but if every news outlet is going to face the gallows, we risk losing the Fourth Estate completely.

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I know what you might be thinking. Who cares? The mainstream media is run by corporations who care more about clickbait headlines and ratings than they do educating the public. Mainstream media outlets often serve the interests of one side of the political spectrum over the other. They are more concerned with being first, than being right.

This is all true. We live in an era of what I like to call "knee-jerk journalism," and the press must accept their share of the responsibility for why we are where we are today. They must accept their role in the rise of "fake news," because if the public trusted them, this would be less of an issue today.

The American Press Corps did this to an extent ahead of President Trump's inauguration when they warned the president that they would not be silenced but at the same time thanked him for the "wake up call."

“We credit you with highlighting serious and widespread distrust in the media across the political spectrum. Your campaign tapped into that, and it was a bracing wake-up call for us. We have to regain that trust. And we’ll do it through accurate, fearless reporting, by acknowledging our errors and abiding by the most stringent ethical standards we set for ourselves.” – American Press Corps

There are many people who take to the comment section of Facebook or to their Twitter feed to react to the mainstream media with scorn -- and it is not completely unjustified. However, the mainstream media is not going to be the most affected by the fake news witch hunt and the prospect of losing a free press by public execution is a frightening proposition.

To allow anyone to simply point at a news outlet like CNN or the New York Times, or Fox News and say, "you are fake news," carries with it significant consequences.

This is why we need a consistent definition of "fake news." It is important to note that just because we perceive bias in a story, doesn't mean the story is fake. Bias has existed in the press since the birth of journalism.

And, a clickbait or sensational headline, though solely designed to get clicks and views, is also not an indicator of "fake news" as news outlets understand that such tactics are needed in the Internet age. It is our job to turn to multiple sources to verify that the information we have read is grounded in truth.

So how do we define what is and is not fake news? Well, simple criteria for this was offered by Craig Silverman, media editor for BuzzFeed News (I know, I know, don't throw rocks at me just yet.)

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If a story has no basis in reality, it is fake news. It is as simple as that. And despite the many eye rolls at using a BuzzFeed editor to make a point, I can't imagine many people disagreeing with the three bullet points above.

If in the rush to be first details of a story are not true, it does not mean the whole story is fake. It is a sign of negligence and incompetence on the part of the person reporting the story, sure, and the reporter deserves to be called out for it.

Errors in a story should be corrected or retracted, and in the event that they are not, then the news outlet that published or aired the story should be subject to rebuke. That should be how we approach fake news.

The consequence of rebuking the media as a whole is that the state -- which presently treats "fact" and "belief" as interchangeable synonyms -- would then be treated as the highest authority for information and truth (with a lowercase "t"). It would mean that "truth" would be subject to which party is in control of the government.

Keep in mind, this is not solely a Republican problem or a Democratic problem. Both sides spin the truth. Both sides use people -- whether we are talking about soldiers, refugees, the middle class, etc. -- as pawns in a partisan game of chess, manipulating information and data to support their policy agendas.

This is a dangerous proposition.

The First Amendment arguably contains the most crucial liberties every citizen of the United States has to protect against a tyrannical, authoritarian, or otherwise oppressive governmental regime. The Founders determined that Freedom of the Press was so crucial to the preservation of liberty that it belonged in the First Amendment.

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Remember what Thomas Jefferson said:

"Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it." -- Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786

Jefferson also once said that if he was faced with the option of having a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would choose the latter. He said that he was "against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents."

We cannot forget how important it is to have a free press, and the dangers that come from silencing it just because we don't like what a story says. If the story has basis in reality, that is not fake news. We must consider the facts present and maintain a level of critical thinking to explore other stories on the same subject that might approach the story from another angle.

This is not just a warning to the media or to the people or to the agents of government, but to everyone.

Photo Credit: David Carillet / shutterstock.com

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