Fake News

Fake News

Fake News is real, and as a writer I know one way to spot it instantly and easily: in the use of adjectives. If a ‘news’ story contains them, it contains an authorial point-of-view. Point-of-view is appropriate for labeled opinion pieces like editorials, but it has no place in stories that purport to relay histories and occurrences factually. Adjectives so used are commentary – there to tell the reader how to feel, to fold the reader into the writer’s stance. It is a hidden-in-plain-sight and potent manipulation, and it takes practice and skill to un-hear an editorial frame. You can do it by blacking out adjectives, if you are reading hard copy. Try it.

Other terms for illicit, suspect, or gamed reporting techniques are spin, and bias.

Spin is used to satisfy readers and keep them loyal, by telling them what they want to hear. It works by appealing to emotion, for emotional thinking by-passes reason. Spin is a marketing tactic. Subscribers and other habitual readers sell advertising, and spin keeps eyes on the page. It also has political uses: to keep partisan voters loyal.

I have been scouting the press, mostly online, for un-spun news, and the best site I have found is the Christian Science Monitor. The stories reported there are remarkably without adjectives.

Check it out.1

There are other manipulations prevalent in information sharing. Two that are more hidden involve curating – of facts, and of stories themselves. Choosing which stories to report is of course a prejudicial act – an editor is deciding for the reader what is important to know. It can be done honestly, or in bad faith. Either way this kind of editorial bias can be sussed by persistent reading of any one news source. The remedy is reading broadly across forums, especially to include points of view outside your values, expertise, and experience.

Fact curating, i.e. selecting which details of a story to report, is more insidious. How to see what’s not there? Selective omission is a tactic to control information and the meaning of information. When anyone decries ‘alternative facts’, it is this tactic he or she objects to, as well (s)he should. As we all should. Fact curating is very difficult to assess in any individual story, and it doesn’t yield easily to dedicated reading, if too narrow. Broad reading and comparison across forums is again the best defense. I like to balance the left lean of the The Christian Science Monitor with the right lean of The Los Angeles Times.

Many intellectual disciplines rely on and reinforce the idea that ‘truth’ is found in commonalities across a spectrum of knowledge. Comparative religion comes to mind, as does the field of geology. Geology, like archeology is an historical investigation and one that doesn’t yield to traditional experimental methods. 2 Instead, geologists consider data and hypotheses from different fields, like chemistry, astronomy, physics, and biology. Theories must encompass all data to be accepted, even as working models. This is a good and rigorous practice for negotiating a complex world.

Meanings can also be distorted by relying on literal interpretations of words and phrases, rather than colloquial or implied, intended meanings. In the run-up to the election, someone said, to explain Donald Trump’s popularity despite his gaffes, hyperbole, poor word choice and phrasing, “The media and pundits take Trump literally, and not seriously. His supporters, on the other hand, take him seriously, but not literally.” Literal interpretations are important, especially in legal frameworks, where parsing and splitting hairs create innocent and guilty narratives. We are careful about assumptions, and with human lives. (And with money.) But in the everyday, we are practiced in knowing what is meant, despite what is said. The most healthy of us also bend over backwards not to take offense, understanding that our understanding might not be the intended one.3 The media today seem at odds with this established cultural generosity, constantly playing an adolescent game of gotcha. Isn’t it exactly teenagers who are most annoyingly prone to meaningless corrections and pointless logical forays, ad absurdum? Not the model for a civil society, I think, and yet it is our current situation.

Of course, in a free society where unrestricted speech is highly valued, there will be bad, false, misleading, untruthful words. This is a trade-off we make so that no good ideas are lost. Here, perhaps, is another role for news-purveyors, as fact-checkers.

But the fundamental democratic corrective cannot be deferred or hired out. Each of us must question, critique, and think for ourselves. Democracy requires us to argue, against the bad and for the good.4 The media’s proper role is to report, honestly and fairly, so that robust discussion among citizens can take place. 

In this light, to tell others what you think is a civic duty. But telling anyone else what they should think is a violation of the first principle of democracy.


  1. https://www.csmonitor.com
  2. For example, we can’t crash a large asteroid into a proto-Earth to see if an Earth – moon system results.
  3. Even in the courts we guard against over-parsed narratives and too-literal meanings, by impaneling juries, who are charged to holistically assess narratives.
  4. Joy Behar said, “The solution for bad talk is more talk.” I couldn’t agree more.
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