Exposing Fake News is Not Just About Checking Facts

There are three kinds of “fake news.”

The first kind – the type that put this term into the cultural lexicon in 2016 – is the sort of complete fiction you’ll find on websites you’ve never heard of, written by people who are just looking for clicks and ad revenue. They’re invented stories, meant to trick people who believe anything they read as long as it conforms to their worldview. And while a few of these fake stories may have gone viral during the election, we’re confident that they have almost no impact on public opinion.

The second kind is more common and more problematic. In the Donald Trump era, you can find examples of it nearly every day. One prominent example would be the report that Trump removed a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office. This type of fake news is driven by two things – liberal bias and the competitive media universe, where every reporter is desperate for a big scoop. So desperate that they rush to print before they have all the facts.

But then there’s the third kind, and it may be the most dangerous form of fake news in America. The problem with stories that fall under this last umbrella isn’t that they’re “fake” – it’s that they aren’t “news.” They are thinly-veiled opinion pieces. Often, these stories have all the facts straight, which is exactly what makes them so insidious.

You can open any newspaper on any given day and find at least one example of this sort of reporting. On Friday, the Washington Post published a story on their website that perfectly fits the bill. The headline:

“Trump’s administration isn’t very diverse. Photo ops make it glaringly obvious.”

And here’s a sample of the “reporting”:

If the images from the White House aim to show a man of action, they also have delivered another unspoken message in the early days of the new administration: Most of the aides Trump relies on for counsel as he moves to dramatically reshape the country are men — and nearly all of them are white.

It’s a sharp change from the past eight years of the barrier-breaking Obama administration, and one that has reinforced the feeling among Trump’s critics that a narrow, anachronistic worldview is driving an agenda they consider hostile to women and minorities.

If you read the full story, you’ll find plenty of facts. Plenty of quotes that real people actually said. And, depending on your personal definition of “very diverse,” you can even argue that the writers successfully delivered on the promise of the headline. They “proved” that Trump’s administration is indeed mostly filled with white men.

In other words, the story isn’t “fake”…but how is it “news”?

These stories may not be strictly fictional, but they are not published with the intention of informing the public. They serve only one purpose: to gently guide the reader towards a certain opinion without coming right out and telling them what to think. You’re supposed to read the piece and come away thinking (but not too deeply) that Trump is a racist and a sexist. That he won’t be able to make good decisions because he’s surrounded by white men. That there’s something obviously, inarguably wrong about having a predominately white, male staff in the year 2017.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “fixing” the news media, but that’s almost certainly a lost cause. Furthermore, it’s not even really necessary. It would be nice, but it’s not necessary.

Instead, we should concentrate on getting people to consume news a little more consciously. To recognize not only the (relatively rare) outright lies, but the far more common “news articles” that are nothing of the kind. Articles that use facts and quotes to keep the reader from asking themselves, “So what? Why is this a story?”

Because the moment that question is asked, any intelligent person can come up with the answer. The illusion is broken. The bias is exposed. The power is lost.

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