“Fake news” is a threat to democracy, but not in the way Donald Trump wants you to think

We need to take a long, hard look at the term “fake news” and what it means for journalism in the 21st century

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

By: Alex Bloom

How many times have you heard the term “fake news” in 2018 alone?

I’m sure you read that in your worst Donald Trump voice, but US President number 45 probably isn’t the only person you’ve heard uttering those words. The term “fake news” might just sound like a joke by now, but it brings with it a dangerously simplistic attitude that threatens the democratic ideals that form the basis of the free press.

Trump has used the term time and time again to discredit any journalistic organization that he feels has made him look bad. In many cases, however, simply reporting the truth of what Trump said is enough to evoke his anger. The Washington Post cited a study which reported that 42% of Republicans “consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be ‘fake news’.”

Perhaps at one time, “fake news” meant what it sounds like it should mean: news that is false, either deliberately or by mistake. Thanks to Trump though, this term has become a way for people to dismiss coverage that doesn’t support their personal biases.

Recently, it seems that people are beginning to forget that the primary role of the free press is to keep the people informed, which is integral to the health of any democracy. The press has an ethical duty to ensure that the facts are accurate and unbiased before they report them. This means following leads, investigating all facets of the truth of any given situation they are reporting on, and — by extension — waiting to report on an issue until they are able to uncover the full truth of it, because half-truths can be just as dangerous as lies.

Ideally, independent press promotes a diversity of voices and ensures there isn’t just one potentially fallible source making claims about what’s true and what isn’t. This ensures that critical information is spread as widely as possible, and — for instance — that voters know what they need to know during an election.

It harms democracy if a political figure can demonize the press by claiming “fake news” any time they don’t like the way they’ve been reported on. If that figure has said something publicly, then the media’s responsibility is to hold them accountable for their statements.

I’m not saying that there isn’t bad reporting out there. Institutions like newspapers are made up of people, and it is inevitable that they will harbor some kind of bias, whether consciously or not. It’s great that people are approaching their media with a more critical eye, but dismissing most media as “fake news” weakens the foundation that democracy is built upon.

As reported by BBC News, Trump recently went so far as to claim that a third of Americans think the media is “the enemy of the people.” Regardless of how widely held this dismissive attitude is, “fake news” has become an unfortunately infectious catchphrase. Now, more than ever, we as the consumers of media need to critically examine what truly constitutes “fake news,” and who benefits from this narrative, or we risk irrevocably damaging the integrity of the press.