The Problem with Fake News

We’re facing a serious problem with fake news.

And no, I don’t mean the issues of demonizing the free press, inaccurately reporting events, and an overall diminishing of the quality of journalism. Of course, these problems are real problems that are in need of addressing. And yes, most people generally refer to these kinds of issues as fake news. But that’s not what I’m concerned about right now when I say there’s a serious problem with fake news.

There is a serious problem with the phrase “fake news” itself.

The term has been used in so many different contexts, and thrown around in so many situations, that calling something “fake news” doesn’t really mean anything anymore. Although the term is used colloquially to refer to many different things, it likely serves to create more ambiguity in whatever it is you’re discussing. “Fake News” is imprecise language, and is ultimately just lazy writing.

The problem is that so many different things technically fall under the umbrella of “fake news.” The President uses it to attack news outlets he doesn’t like, as with his assertion that CNN’s Jim Acosta is fake news. Conservative media companies may use it to refer to liberal news outlets, and vice versa. Fake news may mean inaccuracies in reporting the news, something that regularly occurs—which is why most newspapers frequently issue corrections to previous publications. But fake news may also refer to fundamentally bad reporting, and stories that claim to use the process of journalism but actually lack objectivity and professional standards. What about a op-ed that is mistakenly believed to be an actual news story? Could be considered fake news. Or a story that is based in reality, but is detrimental to someone’s reputation? Sure, guess we can call that fake news too. When you get right down to it, would it really be that far of a stretch to consider parody and satire websites such as The Onion to be fake news too? The things they publish are presented as news but are, in fact, false.

And that’s the problem with using the phrase “fake news.” It’s been widely used by many different people in so many different contexts that it become too ambiguous. Especially now that it has been adopted by many politicians as a phrase to attack the free press, it becomes even trickier to use “fake news” to refer to actual bad reporting.

It’s likely that the phrase “fake news” will not fade away any time soon. However, I think it is still important to attempt to use more precise and accurate language. For instance, you can use words like “misinformation,” “disinformation,” or “malinformation” instead. These terms are similar to “fake news” but each refers to a specific category of information. Here are the definitions from the Ethical Journalism Network:

  • Dis-information – Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.
  • Mis-information – Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm.
  • Mal-information – Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.

These terms are much better than the broad label of “fake news” because they more accurately convey the nature of the information in question, such as whether it’s true or false, as well as what its intention is.

The idea of the truth, and reporting that truth in journalism, is a really complicated issue. It is most certainly not something that exists in a perfect binary of true or false. The various problems that have been labeled as “fake news” certainly make reporting the truth even more difficult. The first step to addressing the problem is to stop calling it “fake news” and start using language that is more accurate and more precise.

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