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On What Is 'Fake' and What Is 'News'

The phrase “fake news” rolls off the tongue so easily that I use it to label everything from false news stories to my mother’s concerns that I don’t eat enough breakfast at college. I am surely not the only one guilty of using the phrase to dismiss things I do not like hearing. President Donald Trump, for example, has often used the allegation of “fake news” to cast aspersions on stories that he does not like.

Despite its increasing overuse, the phrase “fake news” points to a real problem. We are usually focused on the “fake” in “fake news.” The rise of egregiously false stories and their financially motivated creators makes us less informed and more distrustful of major American institutions. A recent MIT study found that false stories spread faster than true ones on social media. Technology companies, journalists, and politicians have all acknowledged this, and are trying to combat the problem.

However, eradicating egregiously “fake news” should not be the end of our efforts to reform American media. The news that is not “fake” is presumably “real.” But something that is “real” is not necessarily “good.”

In television media particularly, there are pressing problems that do not fall under the “fake news” umbrella but that should still be addressed. These issues have more to do with what is “news” rather than what is “fake.”

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“News” may be a slight misnomer for what programs on channels like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox air. “News analysis” is a better descriptor of their activities. These popular shows are still technically sources of information, since they have to establish the facts before analyzing them. But the news commentators on these shows have no obligation to be unbiased, as they discuss and debate the facts at hand.

Therefore, I think the distinction between “news” and “news analysis” must be made clearer to the public. Even the president struggles to realize the difference. In a recent tweet complaining that coverage of his impending talks with Kim Jong Un went from pleasantly surprised to dismissive, Trump concluded that “the news became FAKE.” But presumably, the media reported the fact that talks would be happening, and then moved on to analyzing that development, which they were free to do, but in a way with which Trump disagreed.

In the past two years, many have raised concerns about how the mainstream media is too liberal. Maybe this perceived bias was the problem Trump was railing against in his tweet. Media bias is a legitimate problem, but not one of “fake news.” In terms of strict definitions, the genre of news analysis cannot be “fake” because it is not “news.”

The most popular figures in television media can help distinguish the genres of their shows by being clearer about their own positions. Are they journalists or talk show hosts? Journalists are held to a higher standard of accuracy because their job is to report the news and to leave their opinions out of their work. Talk show hosts or commentators, in contrast, have more leeway because they are explicitly being paid to share their opinions.

Many anchors’ own vacillations about this distinction add to viewers’ confusion. For years, Sean Hannity, host of a radio show and a Fox primetime show, defended his work by saying that he is “a talk host” and has “never claimed to be a journalist.” In Nov. 2017, though, Hannity reversed course and said, “I’m a journalist.” Rachel Maddow of MSNBC has also dodged the question of whether she is a “journalist or commentator” by calling herself a “cable-TV host.” Yet in 2016, she figured prominently in MSNBC’s presidential election coverage, a role typically reserved for news anchors, not liberal commentators.

One might argue that the question of whether these media figures are journalists is not important because their fans already trust them. But perhaps that is the problem itself—that millions do trust them without knowing whether they are really paid for the news they share or their opinions about it instead.

Another group that deserves more attention is the pundits brought onto these shows to comment on specific topics. Usually television channels will give them titles like “political commentator” or “contributor.” But these vague titles do not clarify that they are paid to share their opinions, not necessarily the facts. Controversial commentators who play loose with the facts, like Fox analyst Andrew Napolitano, or who have conflicts of interest, like former CNN contributor Corey Lewandowski, may even be more valuable for ratings. Again, the quality of pundits is not exactly a problem of “fake news,” but hiring them more judiciously and making their positions clearer will improve the opinions being provided to the American public.

The rise of the phrase “fake news” has forced a reckoning with our media. Let’s not stop halfway. We should of course continue to target what is fake. But we should also clarify what is news.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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