Since the beginning of the 2016 presidential election, the idea of fake news has grown in popularity, compromising the public’s faith in credible media organizations and establishing trust in unreliable clickbait journalism.
“Fake news is something that is falsified, that is planted to look like one thing and is another, that is not committed by responsible professionally organized reporters,” journalism professor Jonathan Sanders said. Sanders is involved with the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook, a program which teaches students to critically analyze the news and determine whether or not it is reliable. “It usually does not go through a chain of editing, usually is not done by an entity that will take responsibility for its actions, and for clarifying its mistakes. But there is a difference between fake news, badly reported news, bad interpretations of news, and the use of the term fake news to put down people who are doing good reporting but whose point of view is an anathema to the speaker.”
Public figures like President Donald Trump are using the term fake news to insult news organizations that criticize or question their actions. This use of fake news is putting public trust of the media at an all-time low. But this is a stark contrast from the term’s initial meaning.
“Fake news used to be considered ‘The Daily Show’ and now it’s considered things like Breitbart,” Sara Yeganeh, a graduate student at Stony Brook specializing in political communication, said. “Infotainment was considered to be fake news, because there’s an entertainment angle. … And what happened with this past election cycle is that with technology continuing to grow, a lot of college students got paid a lot of money to write fake news articles. It’s like click bait and you get money based on the amount of clicks. It’s not really content driven. It’s a sort of a fast cash situation. … Now if you’re watching ‘The Daily Show,’ you’re miles ahead of the fake news media.”
The first step in identifying objectively fake news is to analyze the story’s legitimacy, according to Richard Hornik, director of the Overseas Partnership Program at the Center for News Literacy. Readers can also identify fake news by the headline formatting. If the text is in all capital letters, it is most likely fake. Another simple way to assess news is to check if other media organizations are reporting the same story.
“One of the things we try to teach is the sense of too good to be true,” Hornik said. “If you see a story, and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that’s true,’ there’s a good chance it isn’t.”
Sanders suggests readers use the VIA test when analyzing news. In the acronym, V stands for verification. Are there more than two sources? Is it from a legitimate news organization? I stands for independence. Readers have to question whether the organization exists for ideological purposes or to report news. Lastly, A stands for assuming responsibility. Will the organization assume responsibility if a reader calls them out for it?
Social media platforms are often used to spread fake news on a larger scale. Websites such as Facebook are attempting to combat the issue, using algorithms to filter out fake news from users’ feeds. But these attempts have yet to eliminate fake news completely. It is now becoming the public’s responsibility to identify and report fake news.
“In the newspaper and traditional television era we had traditional gatekeepers — editors, producers, senior producers — who made sure things were verified, right and accurate, before they went before the public,” Sanders said. “The digital revolution has taken away the gatekeepers. We have not yet learned. … how to push all of the garbage aside. We will. People learn and adapt new skills.”