As the fourth estate, the press is equipped to play the role of a political watchdog, exercising a system of checks and balances on all three branches of government. However, in recent years, the term “fake news” has been increasingly used to describe the mass American media, and as such, popular trust in the media has eroded.
Fake news is a nuanced phenomenon. On one hand, it is true that news sources with less than legitimate information and subpar fact checking services exist, yet some news is labeled “fake” simply because certain political figures dislike what the news is reporting.
“Fake news” is also not a new term and was originally coined in the 1890s. Throughout the American media’s history, there have been periods of distrust in the media, such as during the time of heightened sensationalism and yellow journalism.
Professor Michael Martinez, who primarily studies media law and journalism, explained that it is important to define “fake news” because of its multiple meanings.
“There are forces that are trying to spread disinformation, literally fake information, in order to persuade people one way or another. That is the literal version of fake news. The other version is truthful news that is just uncomfortable or maybe embarrassing, and it’s just trying to discredit legitimate news,” Martinez said.
Examples of legitimately false information can be found in campaigns led by foreign countries, such as Russia, to infiltrate the American voting population with false information in hopes of swaying election results.
The term fake news could also be attributed to pieces that are not properly fact checked, such as The New York Post’s recent article alleging that former vice president Joe Biden made diplomatic decisions in Ukraine to favor his son Hunter Biden.
The article was based on information from a hard drive allegedly taken from Hunter Biden’s computer, but at least two staff writers refused to attribute their names to the article over concerns that the hard drive’s contents had not been properly verified. Additionally, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were all unable to independently verify the original article’s information.
The rush to publish a story before properly verifying its information indicates another concern over the rapidity of the 24 hour news cycle and the internet’s influence on which stories generate revenue.
Lori Amber Roessner, associate journalism professor at UTK, explained that such monopolies represent the media in a misleading way.
“We tend under this economic model, this for-profit model, to emphasize news that traditionally sells, and what we’ve seen with phenomena like search engine optimization is kind of an escalation of sensationalized headlines that don't accurately reflect subject matter content and that are designed to serve as clickbait to increase the number of clicks to a particular news story, and in ways that phenomenon mirrors the climate of yellow journalism, which was dominant in the last decade of the 19th century, and of course it’s in that decade that the term fake news is coined,” Roessner said.
Conservative media proprietor Rupert Murdoch owns The New York Post through his company Newscorp, along with Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and several others. Murdoch’s holdings are a prime example of the way that media conglomerates function in the United States. The same few large corporations have purchased so many media organizations that 90% of the media in the U.S. is now owned by only six companies, including Newscorp, GE, Viacom, Disney, Time Warner and CBS.
Although the sales side of a news organization is intended to operate separately from the editorial side, sometimes corporate influence, usually regarding monetary situations, trickles through to editors and writers. Murdoch is the best example of this situation, as he has the power to shape the news in the direction he prefers through his various outlets.
Roessner explained that such monopolies represent the media in a misleading way.
“It gives us the illusion of choice. … It appears that we have great choice in the media content that we are exposed to when in fact, the decision making around that content is primarily controlled by these six organizations that are headed primarily by white men, and so we really find that we don’t have a great deal of choice at all,” Roessner said.
Martinez added that typically, the fourth estate pushes back against biased corporate influence.
“There is this kind of pressure sometimes from the corporate side on the editorial side. It’s not usually ideological, it’s usually money, but it can happen, and usually what happens is when that kind of pressure comes about, somehow it gets leaked, and then everybody’s embarrassed and then they fix it,” Martinez said.
Other versions of fake news are not as nefarious, yet still erode the foundation of democracy. For example, Martinez explained that in recent years, a few UTK graduates started a fake news campaign on Facebook to generate advertising revenue. The endeavor was purely monetary and no political agenda was involved.
Martinez advises Americans to follow the news from a source with a history of rigorous fact checking and check if the information reported can be verified by other news sources. He recommends The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, NBC News and CBS News as some of the more reliable news organizations -- notice that CNN and Fox are not listed. Wire services, such as Reuters and the Associated Press, are also known to be reliable, as they work to provide information to multiple news sources and cannot display bias or subjectivity.
Additionally, Americans must be able to recognize the difference between entertainment passed off as journalism and reporting that is truly intended to be objective.
“Society … needs to be educated. They need to have media literacy and understand the difference between pundits who are on cable television that by design, their whole employment is to express opinion, whether it’s based in fact or not, versus legitimate news organizations which, even in op-eds in like The New York Times, or Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, they’re based in fact. They may have opinions, but it’s based in fact, not out of thin air and just ideological jibber jabber,” Martinez said.
On the other side of the discussion about fake news exists news that is not fake or containing false information, yet is critiqued as such because its content is unfavorable to certain political figures.
Roessner explained that throughout journalism’s history, there have been many attempts to delegitimize the press, as numerous politicians, such as Richard Nixon, have had adverse relationships with the media. However, the dialogue in recent years is unique.
“What is new is kind of this unabashed attack on the news media that has been sustained now for the past four years by a president that uses that strategy to delegitimize and undermine the credibility of news media accounts that he finds to be unfavorable,” Roessner said.
Another example of misplaced distrust in the media is exhibited when important figures discredit scientific information discussed in the media, such as data on climate change, because such information could negatively affect business ventures.
In more extreme cases, certain people flat out deny the scientific information that the media is passing along.
“We get the complete deniers, on one hand, and it’s irrational. They just deny for the sake of denying and then there’s other people that will try to rationalize a middle ground somehow to try to keep part of the things going at the cost of this, and I think both the really absolutely deniers and the middle ground are the ones that are getting us in trouble, because look at the fires in California, and look at the hurricanes,” Martinez said. “We’ve run out of the names. We’re into the Greek alphabet now.
Because the concern surrounding “fake news” involves many entities and concepts, the efforts of several different groups are crucial in re-establishing the press as an important part of American democracy.
“This is gonna take a concerted effort from many different stakeholders. It’s going to take a concerted effort with society becoming more civil again, with media becoming maybe more vocal in the value of journalism and why it matters as the fourth estate, and it’s going to take our politicians to become more civil again, too, and start working together … I’m hoping that [with] the next president or couple down the road, that we starting building coalitions again instead of breaking down into lack of civil discourse,” Martinez said.
For one, political leaders need to stand up for the press as the fourth estate and recognize the importance of its role and autonomy, Roessner said.
Additionally, the news media itself needs to reform its procedures in order to more accurately convey objective news.
“We also need a change in our news model. … There are some real valid concerns with the objective mode, for instance, with how it privileges the official source, the expert source and how it undermines efforts to seek out voices in marginalized communities,” Roessner said. “So we need to acknowledge that as a community. We also need to acknowledge the biases in our systems, in our modes of journalism … most journalistic entities operate based on a commercial, for-profit model, and based on that bias, they privilege and value certain types of stories.”