Defining Fake News

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What is “fake news?” According to Colorado Senator Ray Scott, “We all have our own definitions” of it; “it’s a subjective, eye-of-the-beholder thing.” But calling fake news a matter of subjective opinion is dangerous. It undermines the very idea of objectivity, and it excuses those who put bogus claims and dubious sources on the same level as proven facts and credible reporting. For the sake of rational civic discourse on which the health of our civilization largely depends, we need to to better. So what is fake news?

One thing that Jason Salzman’s “fake news pledge” has done is provoke a discussion about the meaning of fake news, which is not as obvious as one might initially presume.

In his pledge, Salzman describes fake news as “fabricated stories masquerading as news,” as “inaccurate information, packaged to look somehow like news,” and as information “deemed false or inaccurate” by a trustworthy source. That’s an excellent first stab.

But a couple of key questions quickly arise. First, how do we distinguish fake news from the occasional (but inevitable) errors and unacknowledged editorializing of otherwise professional journalists and publications? Second, in the case of a debatable or non-obvious claim, how do we distinguish fakery from the truth?

Perhaps the best example illustrating the first problem is the case of Jayson Blair, who “committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud” while writing for the New York Times in 2003 and the years preceding, as the Times itself relates:

He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.

Were Blair’s troublesome stories examples of fake news? Yes, obviously. Eventually I persuaded Salzman of this point:

In a post [March 17], Ari Armstrong argues that any news outlet can produce fake news, even the New York Times. I’d rather say outlets like the New York Times never produces fake news, because when they do it’s by accident, but I gave up on that a while ago and now agree with Armstrong that the definition of “fake news” should focus specifically on the accuracy of a news article, not its source.

Of course, there is a huge difference between a person or group devoted to intentionally producing fake news and a generally reputable news source that makes a mistake. A key marker of a reliable news source is its eagerness to correct the record. The New York Times “unleashed a posse of reporters and editors to put Blair’s national desk oeuvre under a microscope,” as Rem Rieder summarizes for the American Journalism Review. “It played the devastating findings of Blair’s serial crimes against journalism at the top of page one, with four open pages inside,” he writes. So we must carefully distinguish between a fake-news operation and the occasional fake news of an otherwise-reputable news organization.

Most instances of errors are not intentional and are not as egregious as in the case of Blair. Consider a couple of recent examples, again from the New York Times. (I’m using examples from the Times not to pick on that paper, but because the Times is widely regarded as one of the most important and trustworthy newspapers in the world.) In one case, the Times had to issue a correction for an article that “misidentified Ivanka Trump as President Trump’s wife.” In another case, the Times selectively reported the results of a survey on college admissions of international students, as economist Tyler Cowen pointed out.

I too unintentionally produced fake news when, in 2015, I misread a Colorado bill and Tweeted my false interpretation of it. But I also quickly corrected myself, and, in my view, my resulting article offers the best description available of the bill in question (regarding parental control of children in public schools) and its background.

The fact that generally reliable and responsible individuals and organizations sometimes make mistakes bears directly on the issue of how we determine what is fake news. If we cannot rely even on the best publications to always get all the facts right, how can we rely on anyone to reliably distinguish fake news from real news?

Ultimately I agree with Colorado Senator Tim Neville when he says that “each individual has to be the arbiter”—if that means that each individual must exercise his rational judgment in evaluating reports.

But I worry that Neville might mean or be taken to mean, with Ray Scott, that fake news is just a matter of subjective interpretation. That’s how Salzman seems to interpret Neville’s remarks.

The standard of truth is neither an established authority nor subjective opinion. Rather, it is the facts of reality. A claim is true or false, based not on whether the New York Times or Ray Scott or anyone else says it is, but whether the claim comports with the facts.

How do we know the facts? Although we cannot always know all the relevant facts in a given case or absolutely avoid the possibility of error, we can learn facts by observing reality and drawing rational inferences from those observations. It is in that sense that each individual should evaluate the truth of a given claim.

With this background in mind, we’re in a position to define fake news and the related concepts of bias and partisanship. In my view it makes the most sense to offer a three-part definition of fake news:

Fake News (1): Intentionally fabricated claims, made either with no supportive evidence or in contradiction to known facts, propagated to mislead others. Here the motive is to deceive.

Fake News (2): Unintentionally fabricated claims due to poor journalistic standards. An example of this is an article by Jim Hoft about an anti-Trump flyer distributed at Republican events last year; as I explain, many of Hoft’s claims are false. Here the basic problem is irresponsibility (or just incompetence), not (necessarily or only) bad motives.

Fake News (3): Errors unintentionally made by otherwise reputable individuals and news organizations that normally are corrected. Jayson Blair intentionally produced fake news, but the New York Times unwittingly published it and then had to issue correctives. In these cases the motive of responsible parties is to get to the truth, and correcting mistakes is part of the normal journalistic process. Morally, fake news of this sort is far different from fake news of the other sorts.

Biased News: The intentional or careless omission of relevant facts, or the unacknowledged editorial interpretation of the facts. The case of the New York Times article criticized by Cowen (discussed above) is a great example of this. In a biased story, every point-by-point fact can be correct, yet the conclusion or implication of the story can be false. (“Half the truth is a great lie.”) How does this relate to fake news? I would say that egregious cases of bias constitute fake news. Unfortunately, biased stories often go uncorrected.

Editorialized News: Articles written to advance a particular partisan or ideological interpretation of, or conclusion from, a set of basic facts. This is also called advocacy journalism (which is what I mostly do). A story is biased when it offers an unacknowledged editorial interpretation of facts, because the writer is trying to pass off an evaluative conclusion as though it were a basic fact. But a piece written self-consciously as an editorial—and identified as such—is not necessarily biased. Notably, good editorial writers often do great investigative journalism, and we can learn from their research even if we disagree with their conclusions. So there is nothing wrong with editorializing; the problem is trying to pass off an editorial as straight news. Many people refer to unacknowledged editorials as fake news, but it makes more sense to just call them biased. Note here that I’m not saying that evaluative conclusions—i.e., “slavery is wrong,” “bombing Syria was justified”—cannot be factual; I’m saying that insofar as they are factual it is in a complex and philosophic way that goes beyond basic news reporting.

These definitions can go a long way toward fostering sensible public discussions about the nature and danger of fake news.

To foster truth-oriented discourse, we all need to think more critically about how we as individuals consume news. And we need to hold ourselves, our political and ideological opponents, and our allies accountable so that we help squash fake news and promote real news.

Debating the facts is an inherently messy process. Often people have a hard time overcoming their biases when judging reports. And often the facts are elusive and evidence seems to point in different possible directions. But these problems do not make truth a matter of subjective opinion. The facts are the facts, and we can learn facts by objective means.

Although we can never entirely root out fake news, we can, with effort, render it impotent to undermine rational public discussion and the civic standards that ultimately rest on such discussion.

Those interested in this issue may also want to check out my recent commentary and articles about it:

Image of signs posted after the “pizzagate” shooting: AgnosticPreachersKid

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