A resolution designating the Washington Post and CNN as ‘fake news’ and ‘part of the media wing of the Democratic Party’ is moving through the Tennessee state House of Representatives
In 2017 the Washington Post unveiled a new slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness,” a phrase meant to point to “the dangers of secrecy in government” and the obligation of journalists to cast a light on government processes and decisions. Journalists committed to their role as government watchdogs are an essential part of a functioning democracy, as they contribute to empowering citizens with the information they need to participate in civic society.
By designating the Washington Post and CNN as “fake news” and “part of the media wing of the Democratic Party” in a resolution moving through the Tennessee state House of Representatives, our government officials are putting that light at risk. They are discrediting the legitimacy of two established and trusted journalistic outlets and raising doubts about the value of journalism at a time when we need government oversight and accountability more than ever.
The real definition of fake news
The circulation of “false accounts … for the increase of power and profits” is as old as the news itself. Today, the public understands the phenomenon of fake news in many ways, from “poor journalism” to information masquerading as news with the intent to mislead to propaganda and some advertising. Summarizing definitions of the term suggested by academics, we define fake news as content designed to look like reports from news outlets but with the intention to deceive.
More than just falsehoods, purveyors of “fake news” intentionally incorporate the tone and aesthetics of journalism in an attempt to co-opt the authority and trust that actual journalism organizations have developed as a result of rigorous ethical and professional standards.
Quality journalism, in contrast, aims to accurately and meticulously report on concerns in the public interest according to commonly understood professional norms of information verification, ethics, diversity and autonomy from outside interests.
It’s not fake just because you disagree with it
What “fake news” is decidedly not is facts — nor opinions that one disagrees with. In the resolution, Rep. Micah Van Huss does not appear to make this distinction as he criticizes both outlets for opinion commentary critical of President Donald Trump. Van Huss may not agree with the opinion of those columnists, but that does not make their opinion, or the news reported on by journalists at CNN and the Washington Post, “fake.”
Opinion commentary must still be grounded in facts and the tenets of quality journalism. Only when writers or TV analysts diverge from those standards and knowingly present inaccurate information would the news become “fake.”
Social media fan the flames of fake news, and it is a known fact that outside governments, including Russia, are engaged in disinformation campaigns on platforms like Twitter and Facebook designed to confuse Americans and disrupt the democratic process heading into the 2020 elections.
Although researchers are still working to understand the full impact of fake news on democratic processes, smearing credible news media with the “fake news” label clearly undermines public trust in journalism and the democratic function of journalists. Recent allegations of “fake news” also represent just one campaign in a greater war against the news media orchestrated for nearly a century by both parties in efforts to undermine the credibility of news contradicting their political agendas.
Both CNN and The Washington Post have covered these issues extensively, ensuring we as citizens are not in the dark about the threats of fake news to our democracy. The people of the state of Tennessee deserve access to this information. Van Huss’ efforts to disparage and discredit the news media only add to the confusion.