Facts about 'fake news'

November 6, 2017 11:00

You've certainly heard it. You may have used it. It was named 2017 "word of the year" by Collins Dictionary. The term "fake news" has been used to refer to superficial or sensationalist reporting, potentially misleading advertising, critical coverage, or fabrication of stories, found the Columbia Journalism Review.


​According to the focus group research, "The most striking result of the focus groups is that people see the difference between 'fake news' and real journalism as one of degree, rather than drawing a clear distinction. While they do associate fake news with stories circulating online, especially on social media, they placed more emphasis on journalists and politicians as purveyors of fake news."

In other words, audiences have trouble distinguishing between different types of content, and label as "fake news" various types of content with suspect intent, perceived bias, or inaccurate information. True "fake news," or fabricated information meant to mislead, is relatively rare, but advertising, commentary, and sensational viral posts are common. So is opinion media, a particular challenge because it often appears adjacent to news media.

News organizations can help news consumers by clearly and distinctly labeling their news stories, editorial coverage, native advertising, and sponsored content (see RTDNA's guidelines here).

As of mid-October, President Trump had used the term at least 153 times in 2017, often to refer to unsympathetic coverage, according to Politifact.

Responsible journalism holds the powerful to account, shines a light on corruption, is a catalyst for positive change, and sometimes even saves lives – just take a look at any one of the 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award-winning stories. Journalists are often critical of public officials, from local courts to the president. Journalists are Constitutionally obligated to keep the public informed by seeking and reporting the truth, even when the subjects of stories may find the reporting disagreeable. 

46% of voters believe the news media invents stories about the current administration, said an October 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll. A March 2018  Monmouth University Polling Institute survey found 77% of Americans believe responsible journalists report “fake news” at least occasionally. Thirty-one percent believe we report “fake news” regularly.

RTDNA believes that every day across America, countless radio, television and digital newsrooms are seeking and reporting truth, not making up stories. Responsible journalism is differentiated by other forms of content by adherence to the RTDNA Code of Ethics’ guiding principles: Truth and accuracy, independence and transparency, and accountability. 

But it’s not always easy for news consumers to tell the difference between "fake news," non-news content, and responsible journalism, and journalists have a crucial role to play in rebuilding the public’s trust. How? Newsroom managers can start by asking themselves these questions:
  • Is your newsroom reporting stories that expose problems in your community, and then following up with stories about potential solutions?
  • If you’re a news director, editor, general manager or publisher, have you taken steps to protect the safety of your reporters and photojournalists, for example safety courses, self-defense training, and extra security precautions at the station or office?
  • If you’re a general manager or a news director or a print or digital editor, are you making an effort to speak to the public – on the air, online, during speaking engagements, and during conversations with influential people in your community – about the public service your news organization regularly provides?
  • If you’re a television or radio news director, do your news anchors and reporters explain on the air, and/or on your station’s website and social media channels, the process they go through in order to report news stories?
  • Do you publicly discuss the ethical dilemmas you face when reporting particular stories and the process through which you’ve gone to resolve them?
  • If you’re a broadcaster, do you air public service announcements that explain the importance of responsible journalism to your community?
  • Do you, if you’re a broadcast station executive, do on-air editorials in which you explain your station’s newsgathering philosophy and commitment to serve your community?
The news profession is facing significant mistrust and vitriol, but it’s more important than ever. The solution to ‘fake news’ in all its incarnations is more and better journalism. That starts in local newsrooms, and it starts with news professionals.

More Resources: 
How does your newsroom practice responsible journalism? Let us know.


2019 Research