Fake news not new, not easy to define


The Hill Times – Feb. 27, 2017

What is fake news?

The question is dominating political debates after Donald Trump’s extravagant use of the term.

The problem is an old one, though it was never raised before because the news, fake or otherwise, were handled only and exclusively by what we call “conventional media.”


Donald Trump (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Debating impartiality of the conventional media in the media 10 to 15 years ago was not acceptable. They created something like an Aristotelian syllogism, according to which, if free media is democracy and democracy cannot be attacked, an attack against free media is an attack against democracy.


But the attacks have always been there.

For example, in 1977, the chairman of the CRTC, Harry Boyle, was asked by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau to look into the accusations against the CBC and the alleged pro-separatist reporting. Boyle went beyond and wrote that “the electronic media in Canada, English as well as in French, are biased to the point of subversives. …” I don’t know if it was true or not, but the accusation was there.

Keith Davey, the legendary adviser to Pierre Trudeau, in his book The Rainmaker, was more astute, but his indictment against media was sharp. He said that “journalism is not a profession, although some journalists are professional.”

Ken Auletta, the American journalist and media critic, in his 2003 book Backstory, wrote, “Journalism is a profession that confers power but not responsibility,” and “reporters want to be famous, rich, influential. As a media writer, I’ve reported on a new generation of windbags, of callow people who think they become investigative reporters by adopting a belligerent pose without doing hard digging, of bloviators so infatuated with their own voice they have forgotten how to listen.”

Accusations of fake news were happening decades ago, but they were reported only in books or official reports, and only a few times reached the actual news.

It is now debated because the “conventional media” doesn’t control the news any more. Technology has made any individual with a computer a potential journalist. Through social media, everyone can expose fake news and, unfortunately, create more on their own.

The good thing is that, finally, we now are asking ourselves what fake news is all about. The answer is difficult to articulate.

Kathy English, the respected public editor of The Toronto Star, last week wrote an interesting column about fake news and quoted the Canadian journalist Craig Silverman’s definition of it. According to Silverman, it has three criteria. It has to be 100 per cent false, as opposed to “a news article or partisan site that gets a few facts wrong.” He added that it “has to be created consciously to be false, and there has to be an economic motive.”

These are all valid points but, at the same time, they leave a lot of grey areas in their interpretations. For example, requiring it to be 100 per cent false leaves a potential 99 per cent to be debatable. Furthermore, if Trump was not “consciously” aware that he was creating false news when talking about terrorism and Sweden, are we wrong accusing him of creating fake news?

I also agree that an economic interest in creating fake news must be condemned, but does that mean that ignorance and good faith can be absolved? Who is to make the call between good or bad faith? Who has the authority to judge if someone is a crook or ignorant?

But there is much more to fake news. What about the news that is selectively reported or not reported at all?

For example, we read a lot about Russia’s interference the U.S. election to favour Trump by hacking into the emails of Democratic Party officials regarding Hillary Clinton. If that happened, and I believe that it did, why did the publication of the emails damage Clinton? Did she or the party do something wrong? Media seemed to be outraged only by action of the hackers illegally manipulating the results of the presidential campaign, not the content of the emails.

If that’s the case, what about the stolen email from Bernie Sanders’s campaign to help Clinton to win the democratic nomination?

My point is simple. I don’t know any journalists personally who fabricate the news, but many blindly trust some politicians and utterly, even if honestly, distrust others.

This is understandable because, whether we like it or not, we are human and we have our personal, ideological, and political opinions. We will never completely eliminate them and people will understand this, as long as we know that we are not perfect and accept criticism. And this is the problem.

Don’t ever trust a journalist who says that he or she is objective in writing a story. We can only promise to be honest.

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