In his 1909 novel, The Ball and the Cross, the great British writer G. K. Chesterton makes an observation on journalists. In it, he writes, “There exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of people whose interest is not that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or happen unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party or to the advantage of that party, but whose interest is simply that things should happen.” Oddly enough, though Chesterton might have curled his lips with a sneer when he wrote these words, today we might regard the condition he described as the “good old days.” While true that a cynical attention to assuring the sale of content may lead to a plethora of “man bites dog” stories, sufficient success in news provision also might guarantee enough advertising revenue to make journalists somewhat independent. Then there’s the other factor to encourage journalistic quality—namely, consideration for the professional reputations of both publications and individual journalists. The result? On a good day with a favoring wind —accuracy and even relevance.
Cut to the Third Millennium. Professional control of news is in decline. So called “citizen journalists,” aka anyone with a keyboard and, hopefully, a camera-bearing smartphone, can go straight to the internet with their stories. They can even build their own subscribership using social media. Of course, the ultimate compliment to the importance of any story they may have found will still be established best if a professional news media source picks it up and runs with it. And that’s a more and more likely—if not always likeable—occurrence. After all, even if a lead doesn’t lead anywhere, professional news media can always report on the existence of the false lead and its possible impact.
And with the rise of social media, citizen news can even achieve a certain air of reliability as actual players in a story seem to contribute directly through their own social media identities. I say “seem” since I’ve never been able to ascertain how people responding to social media news can trust that the celebrities on Twitter or Facebook are really who they say they are and not just someone with a false email identity. And that doesn’t even mention the chance that in a big-item, deep-pockets story—oh, let’s say, a national election—some outside forces might intervene to tilt the scales. And then there’s the bias of “real people” in supplying news. According to a Pew Research Center survey (journalism.org/2016/12/15/many-americans-believe-fake-news-is-sowing-confusion), some 23% of U.S. adults have shared a news story that was false; 14% shared it knowing it was not true, while 16% shared it and later found out it was not real news. The study also showed other key findings:
- 64% said fake news has left Americans with a “great deal of confusion” about current events.
- 39% said they are very confident they can recognize a fake news story when they see one.
- 32% said they often see fake political news stories on the internet.
- 45% said politicians, elected officials, and others in the government have “a great deal of responsibility” for preventing the spread of fake news stories.
As to that last finding, one can only pray that officials will rise to the challenge of stopping the spread of fake news that the 45% recommend. Of course, the government already has a concerted effort to provide solid facts to answer questions. You can find it all over the web filed under a dot-gov URL. But it’s not just a job for the government. In fact, with the constitutional provisions supporting freedom of the press and the undeniable fact that self-interest may make “official” truth control unreliable or at least ineffectual if the public does not trust the official line, the real weight of testing news quality has to fall on users and the creators of trustworthy news monitoring. We can see efforts everywhere, even by clearly commercial sources such as online shopping venues. For example, when one reads product reviews from online purchasers, negative reviews give one a sense of confidence. And when one leading online seller offers an “honest vendor” feature, it puts pressure on their competitors to do the same. Then there’s virtuous services such as PolitiFact and professional organizations acting in the public interest. But reestablishing trust in the professional news media would help as well.
So what can information professionals do to help? We can educate the public as to the need for cross-checking stories and about the dangers of false news. We might even make some lemonade out of the 4 years of lemons the nation faces from the ultimate danger in false news. We can also support the building and using of quality news sites and quality news features. If we info pros had a dot-lib, we might even create a refuge for fact-checking. We might as well take advantage of the good reputation that librarians still have as servants of the public interest before the closing and restrictions of library services declines too far. In any efforts, we must recognize that falsity in internet information sources can stretch well beyond major news or “hot stories,” and the damage can extend widely. It’s not just politics. It’s money and health and life decisions of all sorts.
Let me close with one more quote, this one from another British author, Ellis Peters, writer of the Brother Cadfael series of mysteries. Alright, alright, hardly the equal of G.K. Chesterton for worldly wisdom, but then Chesterton did write the Father Brown mystery series. Anyway, wherever one finds it, one should seek out wisdom. So here’s the quote, “Truth can be costly, but in the end it never falls short of value for the price paid.” And one additional point, the cost of falsity is always too high to bear. You heard it here.