Fakin’ the News

When I was young I used to have a piece of software for my Commodore 64 called The Newsroom. It was software designed to help you create simple newsletters and flyers. As a kid, it was my way to pretend that I was a real journalist, writing little articles and putting them together into a “real newspaper”. It was pretty innovative software for the time, allowing you to put together graphics and text unlike what you could do in a word processor of the day. It opened up the idea to me about journalism as a career, which I entertained from time to time, but never very seriously.

This software came back to my mind recently as the web has exploded with fascination about fake news. One of the promises of that old software was that it could turn you into a newspaper publisher! But yet, we all still knew that real news came from real news organizations. We could make our little fake newspapers, and give them to our friends, but no one really believed that we were putting out a real news item.

Times have changed, and as ironic as it is to say this on my blog, fake news got it’s real start in the blog-o-sphere of the web. With the advent of blogs on the internet anyone and everyone could be their own publishing engine. No longer did you need a massive distribution network to get physical copies of news to an audience, but everyone could come and read what you had to say, no matter how crazy.

Despite the ease of publication, the majority of people still seemed to understand that blogs are just op-ed’s and treated them as such. It also was hard to spread the word about your blog, meaning that building an audience was often very difficult. But then along came Facebook and Twitter, and suddenly the sharing of news took off in a new way. Now, not only could you say whatever you wanted, but you had a built-in distribution network of all your friends, family, and people you may have never even met in real life. You can spout whatever you want to claim, and if it’s catchy enough, everyone else will take care of sharing it and ‘liking’ it, giving it the audience it needs to spread.

Because many of these news stories come from “friends”, we give it a level of trust that is probably higher than it deserves. Then it spreads, and soon a story that gets thousands of hits and shares is weighed just as heavily as an article published in the New York Times. People start to think that these stories are just as valid because, just like journalists, they claim that they’ve talked to sources are exposing truth.

But here’s the thing, real news organizations are real because for all of their sensationalism, they follow a code of ethics, and have facts to back up their stories. Real news organizations gather facts, sources, documents, and anything else they can to make sure their articles are air tight. History is littered with examples of news organizations that have had to retract stories, causing embarrassment and lost revenue

The fake news outlets of today don’t seem to care about that though. They don’t retract their stories, nor do they often have facts to back up their opinions. They don’t have editorial boards that hold their journalists to higher standards, or that require sources to be corroborated. Instead, they carry on the tradition of opinion-laced blogs, but with a veneer of being real journalism. The outcome? A populace that has fallen prey to misleading opinion, and the death of “truth”.

That’s not to say that fake news hasn’t existed in the past. There have always been fringe publications trying to get people’s attention with sensational and biased “news”, but they were always limited to the resources of their production. The rise of modern media has been a great boon for democracy and an informed society.

Real news organizations have existed for as long as they have for a reason. They have checks and balances to make sure that a story has fact and truth on its side. Do they get things right 100% of the time? Hardly, but they hold themselves accountable in a way that fake news sites never will, and that is why I’ll continue to trust mainstream media any day over the tripe that flows through social media.

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