The two words are strongly associated with a man who has used Twitter to share his anti-media agenda since his presidential win in 2016. But ‘fake news’ isn’t a new a concept.
At one time, the term referred to stories with clearly fabricated content – like the InfoWars story on a child sex ring run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza shop.
But as Trump continues to tweet, yell and jab at American journalists with claims of ‘fake news,’ that definition has shifted (for him) to include any publications that dare to fact check the president’s off-the-cuff claims and all stories he deems biased against his administration.
FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
So much Fake News is being reported. They don’t even try to get it right, or correct it when they are wrong. They promote the Fake Book of a mentally deranged author, who knowingly writes false information. The Mainstream Media is crazed that WE won the election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2018
It isn’t that fake news isn’t a real thing – there are purposefully misleading articles published every day. It’s that throwing around the Trumpian term is harming our media, our democracy and our society at large.
It’s the job of North Americans, as active members of their communities and a democratic society, to be highly critical and alert of the media they consume. Questioning information – even information delivered as fact – has always been important, but even more so now, during a time of highly divisive and polarized politics in the U.S. that have, in some ways, leaked northward over the border.
‘Fake news’ has become a hashtag, an insult, a joke, and often, a statement used for news stories that don’t reflect a truth people want to see.
Donald Trump kicks reporters out of press briefings. He encourages his followers to chant hate rants at the media. In June, a gunman opened fire in an Annapolis newsroom, killing four reporters and one sales assistant. The man charged with the shootings had a long-standing grudge against the Capital Gazette for covering criminal harassment charges brought against him years prior. It’s not outlandish to speculate that repeated attacks on the media from the U.S. president and his supporters encouraged an actual, physical attack.
Most people aren’t using the term ‘fake news’ with the intention of encouraging violence, Trump’s anti-media agenda or the degradation of their democracy. But when that term is thrown around, that’s exactly what is being supported.
And journalism is already in trouble.
As reported by CTV news in June, Postmedia continues to close newspapers, nixing six small-town papers earlier this year and cutting print publications of four more. Those are included in the shutdown of 180 community newspapers, 11 paid subscription papers and 23 free dailies in Canada since 2008.
Trump’s ‘fake news’ tweets aren’t connected to these shut downs – the industry has been struggling to create clear revenue paths since the advent of online news and a multitude of other factors – but it’s hard to deny that the slow decline in respect and trust of media could be connected to these industry changes.
A May, 2018 poll of 1,000 Canadians by Ipsos, in partnership with RTDNA, showed that trust in mainstream media continues to erode. In 2017, 69 per cent of respondents had ‘some level of trust,’ but this year those numbers are down to 65. Only 11 per cent ‘trust the media a great deal.’
And paired with extreme polarization and partisan hatred, media distrust puts democracy in a dangerously perilous position. Even on a local level.
Here’s the thing: news stories will never have only one truth. There are the physical, literal elements of a story that can be determined by witnesses, recordings and documents – and even those can never be fully objective. But the feelings, emotions, perceptions and experiences of people involved will differ wildly.
The media’s job? To try to include as many of those perspectives as possible, and let the reader come to their own conclusions.
Be critical of your local and national news. Write letters. Get involved. Stay awake to the possibility of bias, but don’t degrade journalism in the process.