Fact or Fiction? Truth in Media and the Rise of Fake News

It’s time to debunk fake news. Whether you are a marketing or communications professional, reporter, writer, media relations expert or simply someone who cares about the quality of journalism and news, the current overuse of the term “fake news” does us no good. We need to quell the myths and start talking about truth in media instead.

Here’s the bad news about fake news.

First of all, the term itself is dangerous. News, by its very definition, is about facts and reality. The job of journalism is to uncover and share truths with the public. Its central purpose, its reason for existence, its modus operandi: to inform society about events, people and issues. Putting the adjective “fake” in front of the word “news” doesn’t just qualify the type of news being referred to in the sentence, like saying “local news” or “in other news.” It’s far more treacherous because putting the word “fake” in front of any noun in essence negates the noun; the spread of the term “fake news” more broadly invalidates the meaning of the word “news.”

It's more important than ever to understand how the media works so fact and fiction can be easily distinguished.Click To Tweet

Secondly, real fake news (Really? We have to resort to language like this?) preys on and deepens a lack of news literacy among consumers. Bogus information has always been a threat to journalism, but in this digital age, falsehoods can be more easily disguised, more easily confused as news and more easily believed. As Sabrina Tavernise wrote in her New York Times article “As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth:” “Fake news … is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.” Hence, it is more difficult but more important than ever to equip ourselves and others with the skills and understanding of how the media works so fact and fiction can be easily distinguished.

We must elevate truth in media, and squash the false use of fake news.

As media relations experts, it is our job to breed greater understanding of what is fake is and what is not, and to help consumers and audiences know how to tell the difference.

FAKE NEWS Is… It is NOT…
Made up or totally distorted statements Media mistakes or errors
Bogus claims, hoaxes Biased reports
Propaganda and misinformation News someone doesn’t like

The most fundamental way to determine fake news vs. a reliable article is to consider the source. Recognizable media brands like The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post most certainly do not print fake news. Outlets such as The Huffington Post and Forbes, and cable programming like FOX News publish and air a lot of outside expert commentary and may be biased, but are also valid platforms; they are not fake news. Look out for fabricated stories from sources on lists like Wikipedia’s fake news site page and Fake News Watch.

Check the fact or fiction checklist.

Indeed, in today’s world, we all need to be fact-checkers. Help spread media literacy with this checklist to determine whether a story or article has been reliably reported or if it is indeed fake news.

  • Trust your instincts. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.
  • Be critical. Do your own research; do a quick search to see if there are other stories that can either corroborate or disprove the piece.
  • Check the comments. Other readers may have already debunked all or part of the article.
  • Look for clear authorship with byline credit and biographical information about the writer.
  • Look for the inclusion of quoted sources and research. The more the better, but quality matters most. Look for academics from well-known universities, professionals from companies you can identify, and studies from organizations you’ve heard of before.

A few extra notes: Separate opinion from hard news when reading. Take hyper-partisan and heavily-biased articles and programming with a grain of salt as it is typically opinion and editorial presented in a news form. Also keep in mind there is a role for satire and the humor shared by outlets like The Onion, but it is not real news. Places like Fake News Checker can help you determine if a source is fake news, biased or satirical.

As the fake news phenomenon pervades our industry and places the press under unprecedented scrutiny, the question is no longer: where do you get your news? We know more people than not get their information about the world from the constant streams of stories in social news feeds, some of which are true and some false. Now the question is: what is news?

Historically, media relations is core to the majority of communications plans. It can and should still play an important part, but don’t underestimate the value of other tactics and channels for strengthening and disseminating your brand’s messages. It’s a good time to (re)assess your strategy.

Under Threat: The Changing Role of Media Relations in PR [E-Book]

About Nicole Gagnon

With a keen ability to take vision and translate it into tactical action, Nicole has been helping the firm's clients realize their dreams for more than 18 years. As senior advisor, she is relied upon for her direct counsel, out-of-the-box thinking and creative programming. Her greatest joy is seeing others – clients, colleagues and peers alike – get to that aha moment, and she isn't afraid to take risks, ask the tough questions (maybe it comes from her years as a journalist) and experiment to get them there. Outside of the office she likes to keep it simple: relaxing by the beach with a good book and then cooking dinner for friends.