Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Elise Clouser is a senior from Matthews, North Carolina, majoring in reporting and minoring in biology. She wants a career writing about science, and in her free time, she can usually be found hanging out with her cat.
Back in December, as the dust finally began to settle after the 2016 election, “fake news” grabbed hold of national attention, and it hasn’t really let go. It was straightforward enough in the beginning – fake news was any completely made-up news story written to sound like fact. Remember that time Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring from a pizza shop? One hundred percent certified fake news.
I remember how incredulous I was when the “fake news” story broke. Who actually believed this stuff anyway? My Facebook timeline was full of fellow journalists and other university folks posting perfectly credible articles from The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post. Any editor worth his or her salt wouldn’t let a fake news story slip past their desk, right?
Hoaxes, half-truths and propaganda are certainly nothing new, especially when politics are involved. It’s practically accepted as fact that politicians lie. So what makes fake news different?
Fake news fits nicely into the narrative that we are living in a post-truth society. In fact, post-truth, meaning “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” was Oxford dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. And when “alternative facts” are now part of the mainstream American political rhetoric, it’s not hard to see why.
But fake news has evolved to mean more than just a false news story. It’s now been co-opted to mean “anything that contradicts my worldview.” Biases have always existed in news reporting. But when “fake news” is conflated with “anything that paints me in a negative light,” the line between what is real and what is fake seems even more blurred.
All of this is pretty disheartening to journalists and editors who have always strived for fairness and for reporting the truth. It feels as though we need to be on the defense, especially when we’re called the “opposition party.”
The role of the editor has evolved just as the media have evolved over the past few decades. But in the face of “fake news,” the editor must do what he or she has always done: dedicate himself or herself to the truth. Sensationalism gets the clicks, but I think that people still crave the truth.
People want to be informed. Yes, sometimes we want to hear things that reinforce our personal opinions, but we also simply want to know what’s going on. We don’t always want loaded language and jabs at the other side. Sometimes we just need the facts.
More than ever, editors must ensure that they publish the facts. There is still a place for facts in modern society. Editors are in the powerful position of making sure facts are out there.
Editors need to not only trust their reporters to be thorough and fair, but to hold them accountable if they are not. Editors need to verify information before publishing. They need to present both sides of the story. Editors will have to make tough news judgments in the coming months. It will be tempting to shun the facts when they don’t fit a certain narrative. But editors never give up on the truth. There is still an audience for the truth.
Restoring the public’s faith in the press is not a task that can be accomplished overnight. There are no easy answers for how to combat fake news or the filter bubble. Fake news may be here to stay, but so is good, truthful journalism. And we can’t give up on it just yet.