Moving Past Fake News
In the global media conversation, it seems the big news is fake news and its impact on political and social events. Concerns about the 2017 election in Kenya and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, focused in large part on social media falsehoods that may have influenced the outcome of each. Certainly, it’s important for people to possess skills to assess what’s real and what’s unreal online, but there’s so much more to understanding news. To focus solely on determining fake from real, truth from lies, misses a deeper understanding. We need to dive in and look at journalism as a complex, socially constructed media form that is rapidly changing in the digital environment.
In journalism the concept fake becomes slippery once you view all of news as a social construction. I don’t believe journalism has ever been purely objective or without bias, no matter the medium or the source. Certainly, outright lies exist, but even truthful or reliable news reports are biased. The challenge is to understand where, how and why biases exist in news. All journalism is constrained by political, social, economic, aesthetic and technological factors. These constraints limit how information is shaped, how it can be distributed, and what impact it has.
Individuals and news organizations are constrained by personal and organizational social and political biases (including government control), by traditions of journalistic training, and by organizational policies. Efforts in the past few years to explicitly train African journalists to focus on climate change reporting or illicit financial flows in various African countries are just two examples of how news organizations, working with outside agencies, set an agenda that determines the stories reporters cover.
News is also constrained by the technology, or medium, for which it is constructed. What I mean is that there are space constraints in print media and time constraints in radio and television broadcasting. A story about a Boko Haram kidnapping will be reported very differently on Kenya’s KBC radio than in the Daily Nation. Sounds convey information differently than do printed words, still photos or highly edited images in videos. These are all unique modes of communication, creating different impacts and, indeed, different stories. There is much to understand about how these modes differ, and how they have very different impacts on their audiences. These differences are often overlooked when examining news.
A major constraint of all news, in all media, is economic. News is nearly always a product to be sold to an audience, to be shared for a price. Despite what news organizations might claim, money determines and influences information in newspapers and other print entities, on broadcasting and cable outlets, and on the web. Whoever pays for the news has the most say in what becomes the news, whether it is a government or commercial advertisers.
News constraints also apply to online information. When one considers these constraints, or biases, the fake versus real framework for talking about news is clearly only one piece of a much bigger puzzle. It dismisses all of the other factors that have always existed in news production and circulation. Internet economics creates an added layer of complexity. Algorithms, those mathematical models that track individual browsing and sharing, are the financial foundation of the web. They determine the ads and information in one’s personal feed. They are what search engines, social media sites and advertisers rely on. Those who understand the way algorithms work know how to target news in a focused and fleeting way to clusters of people likely to spread information via social network sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Cambridge Analytica does this superbly, as we’ve come to learn. This can have a profound effect on public opinion and political elections, for example. Information targeters cannot easily be tracked, and social media platforms, so far, are not required to keep tabs on them. The algorithmic advertising model is unlike anything from the pre-digital era, a big reason why the digital environment is a completely new frontier.
News Is a Changing Genre
Given the constraints and biases of all media, and particularly those of the digital environment, news is clearly a social construction and a rapidly changing genre. Today news is not just a message system or a product, but a process of participation and of relationships. It is multi-player participation in an environment of shared information, influence, access and circulation. In traditional journalistic practice and education, the concepts truth, objectivity and reliability have been held up as measures applicable to individual stories, reports and messages. However, as young people I study tell me, in today’s digital realm, truth for them is determined by multiple voices and multiple perspectives in a culture of sharing. The legacy model of journalism has collapsed. News today is a connection of players: traditional news organizations, social networking sites, journalists pro and amateur, and everyone and everything in between who are borrowing from and building on each other through links, hyperlinks and sharing. News is constructed across social media, in blogs and on commercial, government-controlled, government-influenced and nonprofit sites. It is often indistinguishable from advertising and entertainment. All the genres have blurred.
The digital environment is a different landscape, and all the players, including journalists, policymakers and citizens alike, need to understand the boundaries of this landscape and how to move within it. Everyone needs comprehensive media literacy education. Assessing online sources is important, but it’s not enough. It’s equally important to realize all the constraining factors in news production, and how news, like all genres, is changing in the digital environment. We need to understand our role as participants and news aggregators there, to take full responsibility for online information production and circulation. To that end I’ve included below a checklist of questions to consider when examining news and information we attend to, create and participate in. The questions are meant to inspire critical thinking, and to demonstrate a wide range of considerations about news and online information participation. The goal is to move off the fake-versus-real debate and onto something deeper and more relevant to the digital environment in which we reside.
Important Questions to Ask Yourself:
Use these questions to reflect on any news item or information you find on the web before you share it:
- Who produced this piece? Can you tell, or is it unclear?
- What is at stake for the individual or organization responsible for this story? What do they stand to gain?
- Who is paying the bill to produce and distribute this information? Is it clear?
- What facts are included? Which might have been left out?
- What are the unanswered questions?
- What tactics are used to get your attention, or get you to click on the story? Are there any hyperbolic or highly charged words or phrases?
- How are visuals and sound used to get attention, to elicit a click?
- How is the still or video camera used to encourage a feeling or perception?
- What is featured or framed in a photograph? If it’s a person, what is their expression? What are they doing? Who are they?
- What camera angles are used? What is the pace of editing, if it’s a video? What is the overall feel?
- Are elements of humor, such as sarcasm, used? What effect do they have?
- What sorts of sounds are included in the piece, if any? What impact do they have?
Use these questions to reflect on your own social media practices:
- From which sources or sites am I getting my information?
- What have I decided to share? Why? Am I sharing things my friends or acquaintances have posted on social media?
- Have I sought out other sources about this same idea, event or topic?
- Have I closely examined opinions, views or versions of a story that vary?
- When I respond to news and information others have posted, how do I engage? Do I seek to enter thoughtful discussion or am I prone to emotional reaction? Why?
Katherine G. Fry, Ph.D., is a professor of media studies and chair of the Department of Television and Radio at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She teaches and publishes in the areas of media research and criticism; media ecology; media literacy; and cultural analysis of journalism. A Fulbright scholar, she is currently engaged in researching the changing definition of journalism accompanying changes in communication technologies and in audience news engagement. Fry has developed, and teaches, a model of activist media literacy education based on her grass-roots media literacy education work as co-founder of the nonprofit, New York City–based organization The LAMP. She is the author of “Constructing the Heartland: Television News and Natural Disaster and a co-editor of Identities in Context: Media, Myth, Religion in Space and Time.”
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.