The term “fake news” applies to a whole host of things. From the yellow journalism of the 1800s where journalists and their editors lied for sport and sensationalism to the satirical news of today where Jon Stewart is the king of telling the news exactly how it is (sort of), society has seen several phases of fake news. For the purpose of this paper, I am going to define “fake news” as fake journalism, or, something that is masquerading as reporting that has actually been spoon-fed to reporters. Based on this definition, people are being misled by fake news, and their tolerance is wearing thin.
Before the news media became professionalized, it was recognized as more of a sport. According to Robert Love in a Columbia Journalism Review article, the first major hoax in the modern media was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. Essentially, newspapers were citing a fake scientific journal claiming that a scientist had seen life on the moon through a new telescope. According to Love, it turned out the entire hoax came from Benjamin Day, publisher of the New York Sun, in an effort to move papers. In the years following, people didn’t seem to mind the hoaxes, and in fact, a new “kind of warm retrospective began to appear as an occasional column or feature, illustrating a growing trend among newspapers to look back with a smile on the bad old days of great hoaxes.” (Love) Newspapers were literally marketing the same story twice and profiting from it, but as the media gained more authority, this pleasure cruise of fake publications began to wane.
Today, people look to the news media as the Fourth Estate, a solid foundational resource that will provide them with facts and information. Certain kinds of fake news have survived, but the ones society tends to take kindly to are the ones that front themselves as such. Programs such as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report and newspapers like The Onion pride themselves on their satirical and sometimes outrageously fake news reporters. The reason this works for them is because they front themselves as fake news. There is never a question that a person turning to one of these sources is looking more for entertainment than information, and that is perfectly fine. Since the reporters and the public are on the same page about what they are watching or reading, there is no harm done. The issue with fake news today stems from fake news that is disguised as the real thing with no intentions to clear muddy waters.
When people see a news story, whether they watch it or read it, they should be able to trust the reputable source of their choosing has done the research and created the piece in front of them. “Today, people expect the news media to give them relevant, accurate information. Serious journalists have for decades thought of themselves as the descendants of muckrakers, reformers, and watchdogs.”(Love) With this in mind, how can some reporters still take press releases, package them and pass them off as news? By not disclosing where the information is coming from, something called a video news release, or VNR in the public relations world, reporters are leaving the public to believe that they did the research themselves. In actuality, they are merely acting as a platform for a government or industry-based agenda that may be wildly spun or wholly inaccurate. In short, it is fake news. “Just last year, the Center for Media and Democracy identified sixty-nine news stations that ran clearly marked government- or industry-produced VNRs as unbiased news during a ten-month period. Many station managers, it was reported, even disguised those advertisements to look like their reporters’ own work and offered no public disclosure.”(Love) This kind of lazy journalism does not sit well with people, especially in a time when journalistic integrity is almost constantly being questioned.
Now is a difficult time to be a journalist. With all the technology we have at our disposal, it is hard to convince some people of the truth, fairness and accuracy of our work. They see us as a communitarian society, a band of brothers that agrees to perpetuate agendas together as a unit. Fake news, especially the kind I have described above, does not help to dispute this fact. When we run press releases and VNRs as news, we are damaging an already weak relationship with our audiences. Now is not the time for fake news because it distances us from our audiences and opens the door for a deep mistrust of our profession.