Defining the term ‘fake news’
I see that the meme of the year, “fake news,” has finally found its way to the Grand Valley. I’m not as interested in talking about controversy as I am about the term because ever since I first heard it, I’m not sure what it means and I think it is at best imprecise and at worst, misleading.
This happens frequently, where a phrase becomes commonplace and is used to describe all sorts of things. When I try and trace the term down, it seems likely it originated with the Hillary Clinton campaign among her sorrowful supporters who, along with a myriad of other things, blamed news stories for her defeat.
Instead of saying the reports just weren’t true, were made up, fibs or what have you, they decided to refer to them as fake news and some have told me it’s because it has a similar ring to it as that imp of Satan — Fox News.
My issue however, starts at the back end of the term because I don’t think people agree what news means anymore either. The root word “new” doesn’t apply since very little you hear, see or read is something you’re discovering for the first time, so it’s hardly new and if you think news is the straightforward recitation of the facts of an occurrence, without the veneer of opinion — that almost never happens.
Opinion and bias are interjected from the beginning, when someone makes a decision about what current events they are going to describe. The simple selection of what someone decides is important and should be spread to others is an opinion and the importance they attach to the story has to do with belief or philosophy.
After all, how could it be any other way? Things are happening all the time such that someone has to decide what’s important and hope what they choose is interesting enough to get a crowd to listen to them describe it.
Every sentence someone speaks or writes and the adjectives and verbs they choose as descriptions all express a certain way of thinking about the subject. It’s the beauty of language — it is by nature descriptive.
Words provide different emotional responses based on their usage and the culture of the day. For instance, in describing a person of a certain stature, I could describe them as, rotund, portly or squatty — with all of the terms used properly but each of them conveying a different sense of the subject.
It is incredibly difficult to discuss or describe something or someone in a completely neutral fashion and if you’re successful, it’s pretty boring to read or hear.
If you’d like to get a taste of it, read the assembly instructions for your new bookcase out loud and see how many people gather around to listen.
The best folks can usually do is find a source of information that describes things in a way they like. If they’re unlucky enough not to have a number of sources, the traditional way of making that work was to have personal knowledge of a couple events, see how they were reported and install the proper mental filter to rearrange the descriptions in a way that you believe the story should be related.
It’s like listening to one of your coworkers describe their bowling scores and knowing they have a tendency toward exaggeration, so when he says he bowled a 230 last night you have enough experience to understand that actually means a 145.
If you don’t like that person’s depiction, you can find someone else to get your bowling news from or decide you now understand his process and can interpret his accounts, like a foreign language.
To me fake news is something that is pretending to be news when it is not or more precisely, pretending to be important when it is not, like the Grammys.
That’s not even a very precise definition because what is important to one person may be of no interest whatsoever to another and if you want to make your living by grabbing people’s eyeballs or ears, figuratively, you better have somebody working for you that generally thinks the same things are important as your audience. Otherwise you will end up just talking to yourself. That doesn’t pay well.