Fake News and Reputable Journalism

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There's nothing fake about opinion — news isn't news without it.

A monkey reading a newspaper

People have recently been labelling selected professional journalism as 'fake news'. Is this true, and how can you tell the difference?

To answer this we first have to analyse what news actually is. People will tell you it's information, but it's a lot more refined than that, and we expect it to be, too.

To understand how news is presented, we need to get back to basics with a quick refresher on knowledge theory. There are four stages:

  1. Data — unrefined measurements, e.g. the number "10" in a file of weather data

  2. Information — defines what the data means, e.g. The rainfall recorded in London on 6th March 2017 between 06:00 and 12:00 GMT was 10 millimetres

  3. Knowledge — what this information is telling us - some statistical analysis maybe - e.g. "According to this dataset, March is one of the wettest months of the year in Southern England"

  4. Wisdom — how you might use the knowledge, e.g. "If you're planning to visit England this spring, bring an umbrella!"

If news were only presented at the level 2 stage (Information), nobody would buy newspapers or watch the TV bulletins. They would be comprised of factual statements alone. A report on, say, Prime Minister's Question Time might say:

Prime Minister Theresa May attended the House of Commons today to be questioned by MPs. To a question on urban regeneration in Middlesborough she stated that this was being taken into consideration in budgetary planning. To a rhetorical question on whether she should resign following the economic downturn after the Brexit vote she stated that inflation had risen threefold during the previous administration…

Basically, all we get in Information is what would be officially recorded as parliamentary proceedings in Hansard. It may be something you need to look up from time to time (if you were a political analyst or lawyer, maybe), but it's not easy to read, nor is it put into any sort of proper context.

Level 3 (Knowledge) is a little more useful, but it's dry. Our earlier report on Prime Minister's Question Time at this level might say:

Theresa May attended her third Prime Minister's Question Time since taking office. Like her predecessor David Cameron, she blamed the previous Labour administration for the country's economic situation.

Summaries of news (Metro newspaper, Radio 1 Newsbeat etc) will deliver news at this level, but it's really only useful for folks in a hurry. What we really want and need is for someone to tell us what it all actually means in the grand scheme of things, which brings us to Level 4 (Wisdom). Here's a link to a recent Guardian piece on Theresa May's parliamentary questions to illustrate:

Guardian article

We're all intelligent people. We like to think about things on a higher plane, and like to be able to interpret situations in order to answer other questions. The Guardian journalist here wanted to answer a bigger question about the suitability of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. As opposition leader, would he be able to hold the government to account? Was he fit to lead a party which could successfully defeat Theresa May's Conservatives at a future election? The journalist concluded on this performance that he couldn't, writing:

…It all doomed Corbyn to a pretty miserable session, in which he got some of his facts wrong and in which May was able to treat him with a contempt that isn't pretty, but which accurately reflected the fact that, when it comes to Brexit, she knows what she wants and Corbyn doesn't really know what he wants. And it showed…

Now, that conclusion is largely based on opinion. The journalist's for one, and to some extent the Guardian's editorial team. As a left-leaning newspaper, it will certainly be publishing other articles on Corbyn, including positive ones from different commentators, in order to let its readers make up their own minds. Articles on the Conservative government, however, will be generally negative, as readers would expect them to be.

This brings us to so-called fake news. If I were a Corbyn supporter I might have witnessed that parliamentary session and interpreted it differently. Yet I wouldn't call the published article 'fake'. It's clearly contains opinion, and I'd be aware that this was all part of a wider ongoing debate.

Had I read the article on the BBC News website, however, I may not have accepted it quite as readily. It's different for some media organisations which style themselves as being politically neutral. They want to deliver news at Level 4 (Wisdom), yet they are editorially constrained to restrict opinion. They can do this at the article level by either removing all opinion (i.e. making it dry Level 3), or by including both sides in every argument (which can leave the reader confused). If they decide to publish an opinion article today and the opposing view in a separate article, then either of them can be seized upon in isolation as straying from a neutral stance. Questions would also be asked about the BBC's ability to balance their output editorially, and indeed whether licence payers should be funding it.

If you look at any of the BBC's "Have Your Say" features, where they allow public comments on selected news stories, you'll find a concerted (and probably orchestrated) group of activists who will try to bash the BBC for publishing any interpretation of events which they or their chosen political leaders oppose. One of their stock comments is to label such stories as 'fake news'.

It's not. The BBC has no motive to do so. Their interpretation is what's fake. Education on how journalism works is the key to differentiating propaganda from opinion.

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