Student guest post: The real media and the real fake media

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Michael Dickson is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill with majors in English and reporting. He edits and does opinion writing for the Daily Tar Heel, and he aspires to get paid for doing something similar at some point in the future.

The question of the day used to be, “Who gets to count as a real journalist?” But that doesn’t seem to cover it anymore. For some reason, the question just seems irrelevant and nitpicky.

Now there’s a better question: “What gets to count as a real news organization?” After all, that’s the first thing we see when sharing or finding information online. Any article I’m sharing is attributed first and foremost to a company or website and only secondarily to the individual.

Here are a few online news organizations you may or may not have heard of: Free Wood Post, The Daily Currant, Diversity Chronicle and Hayibo. All of them have had articles go viral at one point or another.

The catch? They’re all fake. They call themselves satire, which seems to legitimize what they do, but they are “satire” the same way TMZ or the Drudge Report could be called “news.”

So let’s amend our question once more: “What gets to count as a real fake news organization?”

Given how easy it is to confuse the real and the fake, we should consider it as a spectrum. At one end is The Onion, the big dog as far as media satire is concerned, and at the other end are the most reputable of the standard news agencies: The New York Times, CNN, BBC, etc.

Then we drift toward the middle, what we might generally refer to as the tabloid zone. The National Enquirer imitates real news organizations just like Diversity Chronicle imitates fake news organizations, but at that point in the spectrum they probably have more in common with each other than with either of our more reliable poles.

Although, of course, there are ambiguous points on each side. The Drudge Report and Hayibo might be closer to the edge, if not out of the tabloid zone entirely. (Hayibo is a South African satire site, now defunct.) But the worst satire is virtually indistinguishable from the worst news.

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell: Bad news can spread misinformation and reduce people’s trust in the news, and bad satire is even worse.

The Onion is a fairly well-established organization, but their articles still occasionally get taken as real news. For the more tabloid-esque satire, however, one gets the feeling that they subsist almost entirely on readers that mistakenly think they’re reading actual journalism. And this isn’t only because the brands aren’t well-known and the disclaimers are tucked away in corners; the content is different too.

Polished satire from organizations like The Onion tends to have a political slant, but it’s obvious, and it approaches issues from a very particular sort of angle that shapes the way it’s read. They feature shareable headlines like “Al-Qaeda operative can’t believe how expensive Super Bowl tickets are,” or “Biden frantically hitting up Cabinet members for piss.” Readers might take these as real, but that only leads to confusion, hilarity and embarrassment.

And how does bad satire compare? Free Wood Post goes viral with headlines like “Mitt Romney: I can relate to black people, my ancestors once owned slaves,” and Daily Currant gets views with headlines like “Obamacare death panel orders first execution.” The contrast should be obvious. The worst of these articles are nothing more than hyperbolic political rants masquerading as journalism — and as a rule, they’re not even funny.

While satire ideally contributes to public discourse and offers novel perspectives in otherwise stagnant debates, sites like these reflect and perpetuate the political polarization that permeates our media. Uncritical readers who share the expressed partisan views take the satire as fact, while others simply disbelieve.

And if I haven’t made it clear so far, this problem isn’t adjacent to the modern media landscape and its own quirks and discrepancies, it’s fully a part of it. It’s an extension of the already polarized political media, and it’s only one of a number of ongoing factors that erode media credibility and contribute to the conflicting views of reality entrenched on each side of the political spectrum.

So it’s a problem. And it’s not clear what we can do about it.