True Story

Journalism professor Mary Angela Bock weighs in on the rise of “fake news.”

These days, the media landscape is like the Wild Wild West. If you don’t have a good sense of what truthful journalism looks like or how to verify facts, it’s easy to find yourself sharing memes that are completely incorrect. Before cell phones, before video editing was easy, before web design was easy, you could tell most of the time when somebody was creating alternative media. There were signs, like cheap photocopies, a lack of photographs or videos, or poor design. One of the things that fools people today is not only the content, but the appearance of these hoax stories. They look just like well-produced material from legitimate news sources.

I’m troubled by the idea of “fake news” as a term simply because we already have some very good words to describe what’s out there: propaganda, hoaxes, rumor-mongering, lies, mistakes, and parodies. But I do think the label is appropriate for content that’s deliberately intended to fool people into thinking it’s from a legitimate news source.

Media literacy means separating the facts from bogus or malicious messages. Journalists think about ethics and the larger democratic good all the time, but everyday users of social media might not. They’re used to an environment that was once largely truthful.

When people go on the internet today, they are essentially walking around the great plaza of their community. Some people are trying to con them and others are sharing solid, witnessed information with verifiable facts. It is more important than ever to rely on news sources that have a reputation for being trustworthy, provide verification for their facts, are transparent about their processes, and have journalists that ascribe to a code of ethics.

It’s one thing to be skeptical, and it is another to just say, “Everybody is lying,” because that’s simply not the case. Everybody is not lying. While we can debate different perspectives on what to do about facts, verifiable facts exist. If we cannot understand, share, and agree upon what those facts are, it makes the process of democracy much harder, if not impossible.

Journalists around the world are trying to reestablish trust and understanding with their readers about what journalism is, because there is so much confusion and so much noise. They are working hard to establish their authority as the people who document events, the people who are able to investigate and find facts, and the people who verify facts. I’m encouraged by sharp increases in subscriptions this year to some of the top news sources in the country. It’s a show of support for quality journalism.

I have three basic messages for news consumers: Seek good information, only share information and news that you can vouch for, and consider the larger good when you do.

Illustration by Gisela Goppel 


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