I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this idea of “fake news,” especially since DTs statement that CNN is fake news, and his obvious gas lighting approach to communications. The lines between reality and non-reality, facts and “alternative facts” have for all intents and purposes disappeared. It feels like we are living in some alternate reality where illusion is indistinguishable from truth. But like they say, truth is the first casualty of war, and that we are engaged in some form of culture war in the US seems pretty undeniable at this point.
People understandably don’t know who or what to trust when it comes to the kind of information they consume. So as a scholar and journalist trained in information discernment, I’d like to share a few thoughts that might act as a helpful guideline for how to practice wise discernment about how you get information and how to interpret it.
First of all, I like the above graphic as a baseline example for how to classify the kinds of information you are most likely exposed to on a daily basis. I think CNN is incorrectly placed (I think it is pretty center, but not in the same category as USA Today); I think it should stay in the center, but be higher up the ladder. I also think the title is a bit misleading. It would more accurately, in my opinion, be titled something like “A Decent Assessment of Common News Sources,” rather than rely on lazy, reductive language like “fake” versus “real.” There are good examples of popular websites that fall clearly into either more ideologically left or right positions.
That said, it’s also important you understand corporate media and how it’s imperative is to please advertisers, at least as much as it is to report good information, if not more. So much news and information is simply ignored because it’s not “sexy” enough, or doesn’t comport with dominant cultural narratives which more often than not are about reinforcing nationalist commitments to “good” citizenship and patriotism. This is a prime example of why alternative, listen-sponsored news media was born to begin with. The Pacifica Network is probably the first example of non-corporate sponsored media in the U.S.
But the concept of “fake news” itself must be interrogated. In reality, fake news is news or information that is clearly fictional–as in not based in fact– versus information that is based in fact, whether or not those facts are agreeable to one’s sense of politics, such as DT’s accusation of CNN being fake news. Just because he doesn’t like what CNN says about him doesn’t make it a “fake” news site. This is the very definition of “alternative facts” Trumps’s counselor Kelly Anne Conway, gave us. Good, reliable information is based on careful consideration of verifiable facts that both support a particular viewpoint, and oppose it. News stories should always include multiple perspectives, particularly on controversial topics.
Be aware that good information, versus information that is too skewed in one direction or the other, should always be contextualized. This means understanding that a story or topic should include any relevant historical or other kinds of data. This is where frameworks and lenses come into play. For example, as a Native American journalist and scholar I can say with certainty that most mainstream, non-Native media get it wrong when it reports on Indian country-based information. Much of the time when it’s written or reported from a non-Native source, there is such a lack of understanding of history, law and policy, and Native culture that a very incomplete picture is painted at best, and at worst is completely incorrect. In the case of Native stories, many if not most non-Native journalists are limited by their lack of critical education on subjects like colonialism or even simple anthropology.
The uncritical analysis of history or other “facts” can be illustrated by the Standing Rock story. It is impossible to accurately understand the depth of the protests there without understanding the very complex history of the interactions between the Standing Rock Sioux and the federal government. This is where short journalism format, which is most web-based news these days, is detrimental to conveying an accurate picture of any given complex situation. One of the casualties of web formats is long form journalism (which contributes to the dumbing down of the population).
It’s also important to read not just straight news, but also analysis when it comes to issue-based journalism. They are not the same things, although news can contain analysis. Always look to see if an article is an op-ed. If so, it will most likely be analysis, told from the personal perspective of the author, which will be demonstrably right, left, or center. None are inherently good or bad, just subjective. Remember also that the idea of covering “both sides” of an issue paradoxically constitutes the myth of objective journalism.
Good analysis will include multiple perspectives, and will be based on sound argumentation, logic, and reputable sources, including experts, scholarly references, and other research sources. Keep in mind that analysis is often normative, meaning it will try to convince you of something by any number of different techniques, i.e. exposing you to information you may not have already known, giving an alternative viewpoint, etc. Again, not good or bad, just subjective. Good analysis will minimize inflammatory language and judgmental verbiage, but give you enough information to help you discern truth from fiction, manipulative bias from honest evaluation.