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Sky O’Brien, International Reporter
In recent months, the phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” have found their way into popular discourse among politicians, media, and the general public. First appropriated by the Trump administration to protect its political agenda and then by mainstream media to critique the President’s actions, the initial heat of these words appears to have cooled into a seemingly calm state of normalisation.
But, as journalists, commentators, and even President Trump’s press secretary turn “fake news” and “alternative facts” into colloquial throwaways on broadcasts and news feeds, two important questions arise: what is the truth and how can a piece of news be trusted as truthful and legitimate?
For something to be considered true it must be in accordance with fact or reality. In other words, the truth is something that exists without dispute. Cha Cha Fisher, a junior at Principia College, believes that journalistic respectability and accepted standards of honesty prevent news outlets from reporting anything that is untrue.
“I do trust mainstream media,” she says, referring to mainstream media as ‘respected’ news, “because of the principles of journalism.”
“Prominent organizations are held accountable to honest practices because of their wide recognition, whereas internet sites, blog posts, or even some less-renowned news organizations do not have the same accountability.”
Fisher’s faith in the media as an honest reporter of factual, indisputable truths is not unanimous among students at Principia College.
Kirill Kudaev, an international student from Russia who is also studying at Principia College, finds certain media reporting influenced by political taste or opinion. He said, “I watch Russian and US mass media sometimes to get a feeling for what’s happening in the world. For Russian news I often visit www.mail.ru and for US news I usually watch CNN.
“I don’t trust these news sources. However, I still think I learn from them about what’s happening in the world. It’s especially funny to see how they cover the same event in absolutely different ways.”
Kudaev’s evaluation of the truthfulness of United States and international news is therefore influenced by the political biases and agenda-setting frames employed by news outlets in the United States. Framing refers to the ways in which a news event is presented to influence how a person processes and judges the reported information.
Fisher acknowledges the subjective nature and political frames of some United States media outlets but she does not see it as an imposition on truthful journalism.
To Fisher, the location of news journalism and its form is more important in her evaluation of its authenticity and truthfulness. She says, “I mainly trust mainstream media for factual information. It’s social media venues that I am skeptical of.”
But a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in May 2016 suggests that Fisher’s skepticism of news from social media is not held by a majority of adults in the United States. The survey, presented to 4,654 members of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, finds that 62% of US adults get news on social media, and 18% do so often.
As more people turn to social media for news, a possible explanation emerges for the proliferation of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” User generated news, found in the often sensationalised and unfounded comments section of Facebook posts and the limited, fact-deprived tweets and retweets by public figures with large followings, travels quickly from screen to screen without the accountability, respectability, and journalistic codes of practice expected of mainstream news media in the US.
Professor John Williams of the Political Science department at Principia College has expressed concern about the spread of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” but he notes that the act of spreading false truths is an old phenomenon. “How did Herod and the boys convince Pilate to prosecute and execute Jesus?” he says. “What I find stunning is the willing suspension of disbelief, the willingness to accept these behaviors—to overlook them—for political positioning (all sides are guilty). To me, it is the toleration of bad behaviour in the expectation that bad behavior brings good results.”
The complexity of the issue of “fake news” and “alternative facts” is heightened when the President of the United States holds mainstream media accountable for the dispersion of “fake news,” but does not challenge the real source of misinformation, which is generated by users of social media around the world. Uncertainty around this issue reaches new heights when the President blocks reputable news outlets like The New York Times and CNN from White House press briefings, as he did on 24 February, because they are “fake news.”
How much of the President’s negative critique of CNN and The New York Times is based on the defence of truth, and how much is motivated by the protection of an agenda? Although freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment in the United States Constitution, President Trump and his administration, particularly the likes of advisor Kellyanne Conway and Chief of Staff Stephen Bannon, continue to accuse the media of spreading “fake news” in an attempt to undermine its political agenda.
Another instance of executive criticism of the media occurred on Wednesday 25 January when The New York Times reported Stephen Bannon as saying, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. The media is the opposition party.”
Professor Williams expresses unease about these comments, saying that the media and the opposition party should never keep its mouth shut. He says, “Journalism has, to me, a moral obligation, in order to deserve protection under the First Amendment, to challenge power—to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (I’m quoting someone else), to challenge—like a teacher demanding a quality footnote.”
Fisher agrees. She says, “I think news exists to provide truth and challenge those very interests that may dominate in societies without free press.”