Fake News and the Future of Journalism

By Markus Weinzinger

Now, this may be a touchy topic, but, in the name of truth and clarity, I hope to offer a reasonable, basic understanding of the label “fake news.” The term’s indulgent use by President Trump sparked instantaneous outrage by corporate news networks and subscribers alike. So, what does he mean exactly by calling out the likes of CNN, MSNBC, and other news media?

Put simply, “fake news” means that a story was partially (or entirely) fabricated, or it was morphed with bias along political party lines. It’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of mainstream and corporate news media reported with enmity to Mr. Trump. Even right-wing Fox News contrasted with Trump at one point. However, this “epidemic” of fake news doesn’t just apply to politics. Noted by a 1993 incident, NBC admitted to deliberately rigging a demonstration showcasing the easy combustibility of a GM car model in a crash. Besides settling an apology on national television, the news outlet settled a lawsuit with GM. However, the blame of spiked surety and tampered truth splashes on magazines, too.

Entertainment magazines and tabloids were dubious before, but now their claims of objective reporting rise to another infernal level. Among these culprits are pop culture-infatuated brands like MTV News, BuzzFeed News, and Rolling Stone. The latter featured an episode where a court jury found an article written by a Rolling Stone reporter who defamed a University of Virginia dean with a false gang rape story. MTV News routinely receives negative feedback from YouTubers who charge its hosts as explicitly racist, although the hosts and featured guests consist primarily of minority groups in politically correct ethos.

The reality indicates that now —especially since this past election cycle— the American population has grown increasingly distant from the headlines of mainstream media. A recent Gallup poll found that as of 2015, only 40% trusted the press, down from 51% in 2000. Even more striking, only 36% of those aged 18-49 held fidelity to the news. Judith Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for the New York Times, explains:

“The industry has become politically polarized and, in the highly competitive age of multiple 24-hour cable news channels and the Internet, it’s under severe financial pressure. And this compounds an even deeper problem –failing journalistic standards.”

Miller recalled back in the 1950s, journalists were “committed to producing ‘objective’ journalism –fact-based stories independent of the government and of political parties.” Furthermore, opinions were supposed to be confined to editorial and op-ed pages.

“That world no longer exists,” remarked Miller sadly.

From the economic standpoint of keeping a private company afloat, Miller noted that according to Pew Research, print revenue from newspaper sales plummeted from $47 billion in 2006 to $16 billion in 2014. “Digital sales haven’t come close to making up the difference,” added Miller.

The new economic battleground in journalism lies in the Internet, specifically in social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook. Miller finds that mainstream sites have now employed a new system of reporting, reliant on eyeballs, clicks, and edgy or outrageous content. One new addition to the lexicon of cyberspace is “clickbait.” Clickbait is like the cash crop of these mainstream media sites. It uses an outrageous picture or thumbnail and title (like a photo of a man covered in bees or a dog standing on two legs) as the bait to get users to their content; even if the startling material turns out to be duller and boring.

Worse, the political dichotomy of news hurts both sides. Based on her long experience in journalism, Miller concluded that the overwhelming majority of reporters identify on the political left. This means that conservatives are incentivized to seek the networks that dispense complementary ideological feed. This leaves little room for moderates and independents, who teeter on the lean political and cultural fulcrum. The long lasting effects of divided media spell disaster for society.

Perhaps the most infamous example of fake news appeared near the turn of the century in the headquarters of the New York Journal. Tensions were peaking between the United States and Spain. Then it exploded in the disaster of the USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana Harbor. The Journal accused the Spanish for the fate of the warship, and it wasn’t long before anti-Spanish sentiment festered in Americans. However, the direct causes for the incident were never solidified. It wasn’t until long after that the actual cause of the sinking of the Maine that the most likely trigger was a burst boiler. Nevertheless, the ink of yellow journalism stained America with the blood of fallen soldiers and reputation. Such is the power of journalism in controlling the fates of nations, and the minds of millions into a singular tunnel vision.

What happens when opinion is split into few major perspectives? Self-reliance degrades into conformity; individuality becomes mob mentality. With no moderation, there is no relaxed room for a healthy intellectual debate. It’s by the consolidation of views that a centralized governor can take advantage of ill-informed people. Diversity of opinion and speech, as noted in the Supreme Court case Sweezy v. New Hampshire, is imperative to a civilization’s survival, otherwise “it will stagnate and die.” How can Americans seek and find the truth?

It is my belief that the face of journalism is undergoing a radical change in structure. Since the end of the objective period after the 1950s, corporate news media now publishes what sells, not necessarily what tells. By that I mean that since these news outlets are businesses, they will need to do whatever it takes to claim their lifeblood subscribers. Corporate media has taken a huge blow, and the gaping hole of mainstream knowledge left by their flaws will be filled by a more qualified type of journalism. The new journalism will be tailored to the necessities of the average Joe or Jane. Reporters will be engaged in the heat of the action, not slouched in their office high above the skyline of average Americans. Citizen journalists of every point in the spectrum of politics and cultural beliefs will be the guiding light to a self-reliant American population.

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