01/05/2017 05:20 EST | Updated 01/05/2017 05:20 EST

This Is The Year That Fake News Becomes Old News

The text Truth appearing behind torn brown paper
Michail_Petrov-96 via Getty Images
The text Truth appearing behind torn brown paper

Most will agree that 2016 was not good for much. We said goodbye to Prince, Bowie and many more, watched the political upheaval of Brexit and Trump, and fretted about the continuing tragedy in Syria.

These events alone are enough to define a year, but there was another major theme that drew our attention, and that was fake news. This act of publishing knowingly false news information made headlines around the globe and aligned with 'post-truth' being announced as The Oxford English Dictionary 2016 word of the year.

Whether on issues of politics, celebrity or, heck, even the weather, the cry of fake news has now reached fever pitch. So it seems to be getting harder than ever to trust any news source. Or is it?

In this bizarre, post-truth world, digital media has been called out for creating an epidemic of fake news. Facebook, in particular, has drawn the ire of many for hosting fake news items, while continuing to claim that most of its content is authentic.

This was not helped by Mark Zuckerberg's tone deaf response that it was a "pretty crazy idea" that Facebook had any influence on the 2016 Presidential election.

While the tech industry is very good at taking credit for so many transformative changes in our society, the reality in this case is something different. Fake news is not new. In fact, it is old news.

"News media has always had to balance political influence, editorial bias, audience interests, and the motivations of its owners."

In 1917, as much of the world was at war, US senator Hiram Johnson declared that "The first casualty of war is the truth." This was reflected in censorship of what was really happening in the trenches to hide the scale of casualties and boost morale at home.

Further back during the Spanish-American war of 1898, war illustrators reported from the front lines with images fabricating atrocities by Cubans to attract American support, and as a nice sideline, to sell more newspapers.

While it's morally appealing to think that news, at least up until now, has been reported without bias, the reality is otherwise. News media has always had to balance political influence, editorial bias, audience interests, and the motivations of its owners.

In the UK, the major print dailies have for decades been known by their political affiliations, which provide a lens through which they are read. When the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina peaked in June 1982, the left of centre Guardian headline read "British Hopes of Permanent End to Hostilities Look Fragile", while headlines in the right leaning Sun newspaper screamed "Gotcha" and "Stick It Up Your Junta". Was that post-truth reporting, or simply alternate interpretations of the reality on the ground?

Today's most influential media, from Facebook to Fox News are being accused of either knowingly framing news for their own political agenda, or having too little oversight to guard against those who aim to mislead. Either way, they have become the poster children for a news media run amok.

fake news


Of course, this should be no surprise at a time when legacy media is suffering the greatest turmoil since the invention of the Gutenberg press. Paid content, user-driven social platforms, unpaid blogger journalism and the drive for mere financial survival; these are among the ways that the news media is grappling with itself. With so much strife it becomes ever more difficult to put meaningful resources into deep, investigative journalism.

Back in 1842, The Illustrated London News first appeared, making it the world's first illustrated news magazine. Its early issues covered eerily familiar topics such as the war in Afghanistan, a train crash in France and the US Presidential election. It was also staunchly conservative and aligned with the Church of England, which led to bias in reporting on matters of the royal family and extensive profiling of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As a major news source the paper thrived, but it's worth recalling that long before the digital era, audience opinion was being shaped by news reporting with bias.

The responsibility for protecting truthful news must therefore be a collective one. The world is consuming more news information than ever before, but with this comes our job in considering the source, looking at alternative reporting on the same topic, and questioning the motivation behind what we read or view. Most of us seek out information that aligns with our existing thinking, rather than a contrary point of view.

Be honest, when was the last time you read the Breitbart News Network? Go ahead and engage in your news source of choice, but recognize that, while it may not be disinformation or fake news, it will almost always be inclined to come with a bias.

The Oxford Dictionary Word Of the Year 2016 shortlist included another word that might be better suited to our times; Adulting. Defined as: The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult; I would suggest that in the world of news reporting and consumption, as in so many other areas of life, we should hope that 2017 brings a little more personal responsibility.

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