“Mommie,” she asked, standing in the checkout line eyeballing the tabloid, “did this man really drink 300 bottles of beer and explode?”
No, answered mom, they’re just trying to get you to buy the magazine. This supermarket rag was using what we now call click-bait – offering up a juicy (well, sudsy) bit of completely bogus news in hopes we’d buy the damn thing to read more.
Thirty years on, the game remains the same and fake news is thriving. Thanks to a super cheap distribution network - the internet - it now has a global reach. Much of it is benign, banal entertainment meant merely to sell ads. Some of it is malicious, seeking not so much to entertain but to sway opinion.
Take a recent item in the “Boston Tribune.” It reported prior to the November election that Michelle Obama’s mother was due to collect a $160,000-per-year lifetime government pension for caring for the president’s two daughters. There was not a shred of truth to that story. It supposedly was sourced from an FOI request but in fact came from a spoof site as there is no news gathering organization known as the Boston Tribune. The Seattle Tribune and Baltimore Gazette are similar spoof sites (though the Seattle Tribune clearly warns readers that they’re entering the world of fiction).
So how do you know what’s safe, what isn’t? Well, it can take some sleuthing when there are so many news channels vying for your attention. And it takes a little bit of skepticism on your part to not blindly accept a denunciation from a politician or business person about fake news when in fact the information is merely something he or she disagrees with.
Unfortunately, this fake label starts at the top – President Trump. I am not quibbling with his politics, but I can say, as a practicing journalist, that when he calls out CNN for staging fake news he is being a bit theatrical. CNN may be printing or broadcasting news he does not like. But neither they nor Fox, MSNBC nor any of the news outlets who show up for White House press briefings are in the habit of dreaming up news and presenting it as fact. They may occasionally err, but there are consequences (Rolling Stone sued over the 2014 University of Virginia rape story; Janet Cooke canned from the Washington Post after she dreamed up a youthful heroin addict).
Look for news from people you’ve always used – your local paper or television channel. Be wary of new websites that pop up in your city. Don’t be lulled into submission by their heavy use of news you might see as non controversial. I spotted one story about a local woman who sold salsa at the farmers’ market suddenly landing a contract for her sauce with a national grocer. They didn’t say where she lived, or the market that launched her to fame. The grocer they named was fictitious. All of this was meant to create an air of authenticity.
Do they name their reporters, give you a way to communicate with them, offer subscriptions? Do they carry ads from local car dealers, grocers and merchants, who would be among the first to vett them? Do they carry local news, or daily stories on crime, schools or city hall that would indicate a full-time reporting staff?
Television news can be vouched for in general since it’s extremely expensive to set up a network just to play games. Long-known magazines such as Forbes and Bloomberg Business News are truthful. And while magazines, especially, may stray into fiction, they will label it such. And if they are giving an opinion, it’s just that - an opinion. That doesn’t make it fake.