Fake news? Yes it exists, but not in the way you would expect it to. I was waiting to pay in a gas station the other day, and a man who looked like a salesman was chatting with the man behind the counter.
“It’s all fake news,” said the cashier.
“I read the Times all the time, and they are doing some great reporting – telling some important stories,” said the salesman.
“No,” disagreed the cashier, “they make it up. Fake news.”
This tells me the news industry not only has a trust issue – they have a brand issue. First let me say that having worked all my life in media and marketing – I am grateful for a free and independent media. If there is one thing that is the sign of a powerful and open democratic system, it is a free press. It is an essential. The moniker of the ”fourth estate” shows that having free media is vital to freedom. (Although, every time I use that term I recall sitting with a former congressman at a media awards dinner, and he looked around the table asking what “fourth estate” means when the term came up.)
While the news media is certainly less independent and powerful than in the days before the Internet – the whole fake news debate shows just how important an independent press is in an age of “alternative truths.”
To say that the New York Times, Washington Post or Boston Globe – or any major daily newspaper would ever intentionally run “fake news” articles is preposterous. While their standards may not be as high as they were 20 years ago, their ethics and standards are still beyond question. Yes, there is always bias in any reporting – no reporter is above having some sort of personal perspective. But good reporting remains fact based, with every fact being backed up.
So, here is where it comes down to branding. That the average person, like our cashier, who most likely does not read a newspaper or watch cable news, would so easily buy a lie that the mainstream media is “faking” stories is a dangerous sign that the media has not built a brand of trust. And it is testament to where we are today. Most Americans read headlines on social media, and fail to click the link, or question the source. This is how Russia posted numerous fake articles to social media- and how many companies use a click bait headline to draw in web surfers and show them ads.
Meanwhile, many legitimate media hide content behind pay walls, while not-so legitimate media hand out their reporting out for all to read. And unsavvy folks fall for explosive and deceptive headlines, share them and ask no questions. Google news tends to downplay the news outlet name, and push the headline.
The point is there is no fake news; only fake sources that fail to adhere to journalistic standards and offer honest reporting. We, as media consumers, need to be smarter, ask more questions, and support the many legit outlets that bring us the news every day.
We cannot afford to allow the real and hardworking media be branded as purveyors of fake stories – we need that light of truth, and we need a strong and independent media to ask the questions that need to answered. Our democracy stands in the balance.