Want to blame someone for fake news? Blame the media.
They've devalued the integrity of real journalism by running fake stories
November 22, 2016
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over fake news lately.
Everyone’s looking for someone to blame for the rise of this phenomenon, in which stories with no factual value go viral and are seen by many as no different than a well-sourced article in The New York Times.
Some people blame Facebook – these stories are shared blindly across people’s newsfeeds.
Some blame Google – fake news has confounded its algorithms and several times risen to the top of Google News.
Others blame the people behind the sites – all those Macedonian teenagers and other opportunists who realized an inflammatory headline could make a lot of money through ad views on a quickly erected website.
Some of that blame is deserved. But if you really want to know what’s at the root of the fake news problem, look no further than the mainstream media.
Yes, the NY Times and Time and NBC News. The places that are supposed to produce the reliable news, the stuff people can believe and that’s been fact-checked and passes the sniff test.
The mainstream media didn’t knowingly manufacture the fake news boom, but it paved the way for it in many little ways over the course of the past few years.
The roots of fake news
Start with the normalizing of the fake news phenom by the “Around the Web” advertisements mainstream media publications such as Entertainment Weekly, Forbes and The Guardian plug into the bottom of their sites.
They include stories with outrageous headlines such as “You Won’t Believe Which Kid Stars Died,” underneath photos of people still very much alive. Clicking on the links leads you to a site unaffiliated with the source.
Sites accept these advertisements because business isn’t exactly booming for magazines and newspapers. They need the money.
But they pay a price in making these absurd headlines seem perfectly acceptable. Expected, even.
The problem with native advertising
You can blame, too, the rise of native advertising across a host of sites, from the New York Times to The Washington Post to The New Republic. Native advertising by definition is nothing more than advertising copy tricked out to look like editorial.
When you’re serving up ads in this manner to readers, little wonder they’re having trouble distinguishing real journalism from fake. They’ve been conditioned to find questionable stories across even the most reliable of media.
And indeed, some have trouble believing anything the media says now. A sobering story in The Post Monday detailing the dicey operations of one fake news site led to accusations in the comments section that the Post was engaging in its own fake news story – that the entire story was made up.
Do people care about the truth?
Of course, the greater question facing media of any type after this gruesome campaign cycle is this: Does the truth even matter anymore?
Poll after poll told us the public saw both leading presidential candidates as liars. They called each other that, and the media became an echo chamber for those accusations.
Donald Trump’s statements repeatedly failed fact-checking, and he was branded an outright liar by many mainstream media outlets. Yet he still won.
At this point, people are just hearing what they want to hear, because they’ve lost so much trust in the media.
Maybe that will change if fake news goes away. And maybe it won’t.
Whatever happens, journalism is the worse off for it.
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