Unless you have been living under a rock since break, you probably saw Donald Trump’s press conference at which he called out CNN for being “fake news.” While this comment may seem somewhat run of the mill for the man who gave us such classics as casually bragging about sexual assault, committing high treason in public (asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails), and now golden showers, it is actually quite dangerous. In hijacking this term and throwing it back at the liberals that fake news most negatively impacted, Trump is attempting to erase the visibility of one of the leading factors to his election.
This may be a controversial topic to write about in a newspaper, but journalism is a quickly dying industry. This idea may depend on how one defines journalism. Some might say that the subjective think pieces, news blogs and listicles that are saturating the internet-news world could be considered journalism. They would therefore conclude that the journalism industry is simply taking a new form rather than hemorrhaging jobs, capital and quality reporting. For the purpose of this piece, however, journalism will be defined as reporting from traditional news outlets such as the The New York Times or Time Magazine.
To many, the names of such outlets seem antiquated, or even unfamiliar. Millennials prefer increasingly to get their news from Facebook feeds and more non-traditional news sources like Upworthy or Now This. These newer, social media charged outlets pride themselves on picking up stories that the mainstream media wouldn’t cover.
Articles on these sights have eye catching titles such as “Republican Millennials Have Surprising Views About Birth Control” and “This Bald Eagle Lost One of His Wings — But a Man Found the Most Amazing Way to Let Him Fly Again.” All of these topics could easily fall under the umbrella of news, but they are definitely not the kinds of topics that traditional sources would choose to cover. The New York Times, for instance, prefers to talk about news items that are presently relevant, and often stories that cover overarching societal or political themes.
These sites certainly do have validity in modern society; millennials choose them overwhelmingly over traditional sources, and millennials are no fools. However, they cannot be defined as traditional news sources because they don’t have the same reliability and responsibility to their readers that most publications have. So why are traditional news stories losing their appeal? Well, for a start, partisanship could be pointed to as one reason.
Before social media made its big hit, Fox News and MSNBC were widely considered the non-traditional news sources, though Fox News to a larger extent. They did what no other channels dared to do; they were openly partisan. Fox News clearly shows a bias in favor of Republicans. The same is true for MSNBC, but with Democrats. Some have disparaged these networks for this partisan reporting, but really, they just responded and are just responding to the times.
Bill Clinton governed over a period marked, not only by its prosperity and peace, but by the hyper-partisan divide it fostered between the two parties. It also marked the founding of identity politics, which rooted people more and more into their beliefs and ideologies. This made identity politics an integral part of who people were, making them more stubborn about their beliefs.
MSNBC and Fox News, both founded in 1996, took advantage of this partisan divide. People wanted news that supported their world view and philosophy, and the cable news companies delivered it on a silver platter.
Social media and the Internet, which connected people and opened up lines of communication and virality never before possible, took the next step. With the Internet, people no longer had to turn to singular sources like The New York Times and take whatever they provided. They could now use search engines to isolate the topics, ideologies and perspectives they want to read about to get their news. Social media then allowed them to connect with like-minded people and share like-minded articles about topics that are important to them. This new platform allowed for identity communities to increasingly segregate themselves from other viewpoints, and create social bubbles in which people’s views were affirmed, but rarely challenged. Effectively, social media destroyed heterogeneous political discourse in society, and greatly increased groupthink.
Now we come to what recent analyses have shed light on as a significant factor that may have probably had a massive influence on the outcome of the election: fake news. One analysis of community Facebook pages during the 2016 election showed that 38 percent of posts on Republican-leaning Facebook pages and 19 percent of posts on Democrat-leaning pages were somewhere between partly and completely false. While the conservative pages were twice as bad, the liberal pages were, as so gracefully put by comedian John Oliver, “still terrible!”
One example of fake news comes from a Democratic-leaning site called USUncut.com. The fake news article in question is entitled, “Surgeon General Warns: Drinking Every Time Trump Lies During Debate Could Result in Acute Alcohol Poisoning” and has been shared over Facebook and Twitter more than 240,000 times, which is insanely viral. It’s especially insane, however, when you consider that it is completely false: the Surgeon General never said this because it would be politicization of a government position for what is essentially just a snide joke, and likely a violation of the Hatch Act.
When you click the link that cites what the Surgeon General allegedly said, it brings you to RawStory.com, another Democratic-leaning internet news source. Raw Story does not cite anything at all for its story.
Some of these internet news sources even used the ability to easily stoke hatred and partisan animosity towards Hillary Clinton to generate ad revenue. For instance, it turns out there is a town, Veles, Macedonia, in which over 150 pro-Trump or American conservative domains were registered to residents, mostly teens. These sites churned out both false news like “Hillary’s Illegal Email Just Killed Its First American Spy,” and hyper-partisan news like “This is How Liberals Destroyed America” which were then picked up and shared by Trump supporters on Facebook, making them go viral. According to exit polls, over 40 percent of the electorate got their news primarily from Facebook. That means that they likely believed any story that came on their feeds, including false and hyperpartisan ones from sites such as WorldPoliticus.com, USADailyPolitics.com and DonaldTrumpNews.com was true.
That is just the political side of journalism; it also affects our culture and way of thinking. Blog-news sites such as the Odyssey Online put out thought provoking think pieces which often masquerade as news. The posts on Odyssey, in general, contain little research or citation, and often don’t even discuss topics that would require any because they are subjective first hand opinion pieces. Then there are sites like Buzzfeed, which are first and foremost traffic-oriented sites. They want views and clicks and subscribers and likes. This is why they produce a large quantity of clickbait: eye-catching headlines that usually lead to stimulating but non-news listicles and quizzes. This often leads to a lack of journalistic integrity, such as recently when they published unconfirmed allegations against Trump. Given their growing influence on the millennial community, these mistakes can be very dangerous.
All these new news sources take up space in the journalism industry previously occupied by the old institutions. Now the institutions must compete more fiercely both economically and in terms of readership. So journalistic standards are lower as selling papers and getting readers become the primary concerns in a newly competitive market. They introduce native advertising, ads disguised as articles, to bump up revenue stream. An example of this is a New York Times article entitled “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work” which was actually technically native advertising for Orange is the New Black. This lowers the quality of journalism to the point where its primary purpose is business, not information.
All of this is not to say that traditional news outlets were flawless before the Internet came along. They had many flaws, but the difference is that they were held accountable for those flaws, and that system of accountability may have even contributed to their downfalls. People have lost their faith in news outlets whose flaws could be easily exposed, so they have turned to those that simply can’t be held accountable.
This is what real fake news looks like, and despite the President’s attempts at appropriating the term to use against any outlet which attempts to disparage him, we must acknowledge it and fight it in order to protect our long-valued tradition of high journalistic standards.