All News is Fake News... Well Not Really

Prior to the formation of the consultancy Einstellung Labs, Alexander Zwissler was Executive Director/ CEO of Chabot Space & Science Center and The Fort Mason Foundation. Zwissler serves in the leadership of both local and national non-profits. In his free time he can be found mountain biking and planning to become a poet.  Email:  zwissler@einstellunglabs.com

Prior to the formation of the consultancy Einstellung Labs, Alexander Zwissler was Executive Director/ CEO of Chabot Space & Science Center and The Fort Mason Foundation. Zwissler serves in the leadership of both local and national non-profits. In his free time he can be found mountain biking and planning to become a poet.

Email: zwissler@einstellunglabs.com

There is a plea we hear often from all corners: revert back to honest and fair reporting. There is even a meme that captures the nominal failing of the media…fake news.  Ironically, the definition of fake news has come to be both news that can demonstrably be shown to be false, as well as that with which we disagree.  From all sides you often hear “it’s all biased,” “a conspiracy of powerful forces,” “a furtherance of agendas.”  And this is a perspective that is expressed on all sides of any spectrum you chose, be it political, or otherwise.  Everyone is unhappy, so in this hyper partisan, social media fueled world, we are looking for an explanation, if not a scapegoat. Cleary it must be the media to blame…not so fast.

I’m going to make the case that in fact all news can be deemed as “fake news,” at least to someone. I’ll start with a simple thought experiment.

Think back to a time when you read or saw a news story about a topic or event with which you had personal experience.  You may have been one of the subjects of the story, or your company or family member was, or maybe you were just a firsthand witness to the circumstances that were being reported.  Now, quickly, what was the nature of your reaction to the reporting…were all the facts correct? Was anything left out? Was the context or meaning of the reported facts accurately portrayed?

Without going too far out on a limb, I can reliably predict the following…the story that you read or saw got it all wrong. The journalist left things out, misrepresented the facts, got the context wrong, and just plain blew it. It was fake news, at least to you. But was it really?

Let’s deconstruct this as there are many things going on at once.  First from the media perspective, there are a number of factors or norms at work when reporters put together a story.  I won’t get into an exhaustive list here, but for me the top three are “balance”, “controversy” and “replication”.

In an effort to achieve fairness in the reporting, the media will often seek out and incorporate disparate or contrary views to balance a story. Disparate voices should indeed be heard, so this journalistic norm can play an important role to ensure all sides are fairly represented. The problem arises when in an effort to achieve such balance, the underlying facts become misrepresented.

A favorite anecdote to illustrate this was the time an old friend of mine was watching a TV reporter doing an on the street interview about plans for a new park in town.  He saw one person after another say they wanted and supported the new park....unless you are the grumpy old neighbor, who wouldn’t?  So, after seeing about a dozen folks support the park, he got an idea.  He walked up to the reporter and said he opposed the park, and that more parking lots were needed.  Of course, that night on the news, within a limited time slot, they showed one person speaking in favor of the park and my naughty buddy “opposing” it.  So, despite actual overwhelming support for the park, the norm of balance in reporting resulted in the nominal impression of a 50-50 split of opinion on the issue, or at minimum, some material opposition to the park.  And perhaps most importantly, those of us who knew the least of the actual details of the story where left with a skewed impression of the facts.  

Sadly, we see this “balance” being played out in reporting on a whole host of issues, and certainly not only political ones.  Time after time we see reports about science and health issues in which doubt is cast on the evidence simply by the media giving voice to an opposing view, no matter how minor, baseless or ridiculous.  And while it may be factually correct to say some folks have a different opinion, when it comes to science, mere opinion does not count; only evidence does. By employing the journalistic norm of balance, the media is inadvertently giving credence and support to everyone from climate deniers to vaccination opponents.  And while these folks may feel they have valid reasons for their beliefs, they are not based on data, facts or science. 

This leads us to our second norm, the need for “controversy.”  “News is something somebody else doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising,” William Randolph Hearst famously said.  Put another way, if there is no tension, dispute or controversy, the media (and by extension, the reader) in general has less interest.  It is the very tension generated by varying opinions or a dispute of facts that can make an issue newsworthy.  Therefore, by instinct, practice, and the desire to maximize eyeballs/revenues, the media often seeks or highlights stories where a nominal conflict is being played out. But as with “balance” above, too often these are false controversies, existing only as an artifact of the publishing of opposing views irrespective of their validity.

Finally, there is what I call “replication.”  This is the phenomenon whereby once a story gets reported, it is almost impossible to un-report it, no matter how wrong or false. In the era of online 24/7 journalism, once published, an article can live forever.  Equally, elements of the story are then replicated in future pieces on the same topic, irrespective of whether they are correct.  This is an artifact of a cut and paste journalism, driven by the ever present need to fill the news hole.  A quick Google search will provide material previously (and often erroneously) reported, which then gets included in the new piece…and so it goes.

The point here is that the norms and constraints of journalism have always had a limited ability to be completely factual and objective. Biases in the media have also always been there and continue today, again along all spectrums. And yes, there is indeed “real” fake news out there. But Russian trolls and conspiracy mongers are not the issue here. It’s our consumption and understanding of all media that we need to address.

Before we come down on journalism, we need to step back and take a look at our culpability in all this.  And by that, I mean our own biases. At the end of the day we subconsciously seek out news to confirm our own biases. 

The real failing is in our inability to recognize these inherent characteristics and limitations of the media.  We generally consume media blindly, agree with it when it conforms to our beliefs and dismiss it when it does not.  We expect accuracy and objectivity only when it suits us, and yet we crave controversy.

I argue that our perceptions of much of what gets reported as “fake news” is not a failing of the media.  The norms of journalism simply are what they are, and frankly have always been.  They myth of a golden age of journalism when news was objective is simply that, a myth. If anything, with more sources available to us, things are probably better today that any time in the past.