Defining the term ‘fake news’

PHOTO BY CT-Sent as WAGNER MUG 11-27.



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.

Rick Wagner is a Grand Junction attorney who maintains a political blog, The War on Wrong. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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To clear up the confusion about the origin of the term “fake news” it began with the statement “believe me” and is perpetuated by the new Monica Lewinsky, Kellyanne Conway.  Hope that clears it up for ya Rick?

Mr. Wagner confuses the issue about “fake” news and who is responsible for it. There are several ways to look at it.  The first is to “make things up” and the other to exaggerate the significance of whatever it is which is being “reported”.  They come about in different ways but, through the same conduit, which is the media, and it is therefore a failure of that media.

The first of those (things made up)goes by another term, telling a “lie” and gets into the media for one reason.  It is that those in that field don’t check their facts.  If they did, such fallacies would die as soon as they were hatched.

The second, exaggeration, is usually done for no other reason than a lack of follow-up, and a penchant for drama.  For that, the media is also responsible and accountable. 

When some of us look at news, we do not want to see, either in the selection of which subjects to cover, or how they are covered, but simple facts.  The editorializing should be left to the “opinion” page.

Perhaps Mr. Wagner put his finger on it when he says that bare facts are “boring”, but any intelligent and educated individual has long known that if one needs to read “directions”, one reads the directions and does not resort to embellishing them in any way.

If a reporter is to “report” on something, both the outlet and the reporter must make every effort to be impartial and make a determined effort to see both sides of everything and verifying whatever he/she was told.  One other thing that is necessary for them to do is to “ask questions”, which far too many of them do not do, and for two reasons.

The first of those is because of their own biases (which we all have).  The second is that they don’t know enough about the subject to ask any type of an intelligent question, so we are left with nothing more than such inane things as “How do you feel?” or “How did it make you feel?”

Those individuals (some of them reporters, others publishers and editors) need to better discipline themselves instead of what we all too frequently find, their trying to be what can only be referred to as “drama queens”, of which we have far too many in this country.

Wow. A writing lesson from Rick Wagner. That was painful.

Totally missing from his dissertation is an understanding of what newspapers in particular do and how news stories are treated differently than his opinion column. Instead of looking up communication theory on Wikipedia, he might instead have looked at the site for the Society of Professional Journalists or, I don’t know, talked to a real editor or reporter for the newspaper that runs his column.

Also missing is an understanding of how the internet has enabled anyone to impersonate “the media” and spread misinformation or outright lies—either to make money, inflame the gullible, undercut opponents or to subvert legitimate news sources.

Notice Donald Trump doesn’t even bother attacking democrats. It is completely in his interest to delegitimize professional reporting and make the news media the enemy. Then he doesn’t even have to deal with the real opposition because nothing the media report is true or worth noticing.

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