Filtering out Fake News

The People's Voice

Winnipeg, MB – There is a lot of hand wringing about “fake news” these days — not that everyone knows precisely what this is. U.S. President Trump appears to think it is anything he doesn’t believe. The popular press think it is a conspiracy to replace the media.

Both are no doubt correct to some degree, but let’s look a little closer at the phenomenon and its history.

Fake News’ beginnings

Fake news has always been with us. Before print, it was the rumour mill, sometimes deliberately misleading or just a lie. Other times, it was simply a twist on the truth to suit the reporter. Not much has changed over the millennia.

In the 19th century it was “yellow journalism”. According to historian Sidney Pomerantz, this period’s deliberate sensationalism was already wearing thin by 1898, when a New York newspaper industry publication wrote: “The public is becoming heartily sick of fake news and fake extras. Some of the newspapers in this town have printed so many lying dispatches that people are beginning to mistrust any statement they make.”

Fake news was part of our generation’s experience, too. We all grew up with publications, such as the National Enquirer, which create deliberately sensational headlines and stories that decorate the checkout stands of local grocery stores. The more lurid and outlandish, it seems, the higher their sales.

Laying blame

But there is a deeper, more concerning shadow behind this picture that needs to be exposed, and it is cast by the popular press itself. This is the habit of interpreting the news. Conclusions are drawn by the writers and the story is skewed to support these conclusions. It is frustrating for followers of events to sort out the facts when the facts are often selectively presented.

Not only is news interpretation misleading and frustrating, there is a more sinister side. This is the media-perpetrated idea that everyone should be thinking the same way and that to have a different opinion makes one morally wrong. I call it “Everyone in yellow”, after the Gap advertising campaign of a few years ago.

A case in point during the U.S. election was when my grandson told me that Donald Trump was planning to shut down the Internet. He got this edifying news from a headline. Of course, it wasn’t true; that was not what Trump said. But the spin from the reporter and the headline certainly made it appear so.

When I pointed this out on Facebook, complete with the video of what the man actually said, my daughter in Toronto called me on the phone to warn that defending anything Trump might say was a dangerous thing to do!

Is it dangerous to tell the truth? If the truth is contrary to popular opinion, it would seem so.

The media appear to be quite blind about what they are doing in terms out shutting out contrary opinions. Recently, the Winnipeg Free Press editor-in-chief came to speak to a group I belong to. Having just been in the U.S. covering the election she couldn’t believe that Trump won when no one she spoke to during her stay had said anything positive about him. As she saw it, he had zero support.

The fact is, she was and is simply tone deaf to any opinion other than that of herself and her friends. Even during her talk, she clearly believed everyone in the room shared her thoughts and had no idea that her righteously presented comments were quite off-putting to a number of her listeners who, in fact, did not all agree with what she had to say.

Now, it is true that this bias goes both ways, with outlets such as Fox News being just as guilty on the conservative side, but the liberal press occupies most of the space.

The way forward

I personally think Trump is a spoiled little rich boy who is either a sociopath or just has a low IQ, balanced by an overriding sense of entitlement. But, that is beside the point. He deserves to be reported accurately without interpretation. The public is not stupid and can draw its own conclusions.

Indeed, I believe to some degree, the rise of Donald Trump has a lot to do with an instinctive public reaction against media bias and the shutting down of divergent opinions. This is where the danger lies. Remember, the laws of both our countries are predicated on the right to freedom of speech, tempered by restraints against incitement: no calling people to riot, no hate speech.

It is vitally important that we encourage all shades of opinion to be voiced, because in every utterance there is some truth, whether we like to hear it or not. And in those truths, however slight, there are lessons that can be helpful. If we willfully shut our eyes and minds to anything but the popular line, we are putting democracy in danger and are not serving the constituency we think we are protecting.

Fake news is not the exclusive property of the unconstrained. Fake news can be created with an adjective, an omission, or a veiled conclusion. The media should take heed.

Dorothy Dobbie for The Manitoba Post

Photo – YouTube