Guest column: Fake news vs. unconfirmed information

There’s a huge difference between unconfirmed information and made up — fake — news, writes Roger Plothow.

The bizarre and ongoing events involving allegations that Russia has placed President-elect Trump in a compromising position of some sort is a perfect, albeit completely weird, opportunity to talk about media literacy.

I’m not going into the details of the claims, now referred to as the “Trump dossier,” because they are unsubstantiated and, I believe, should not have been made public without additional vetting. On the other hand, the episode doesn’t qualify as “fake news,” either, since most or all of the information may eventually turn out to be true. Either way, it doesn’t appear to have been invented by some twenty-something sitting in an eastern European coffee shop.

In other words, we can’t label everything short of legitimate news as fake news. It’s not that black and white. Fake news, for the purposes of our ongoing conversation here, is information that is entirely made up but passed along as fact. The Trump dossier falls under the category of information yet to be fully confirmed and, therefore, not ready for publication.

There is a huge difference.

Many journalists are understandably torn by this circumstance because the stakes are so enormously high. What if the man who is about to become president actually can be manipulated – even blackmailed – by a country that still has thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at us?

The high stakes also argue for caution. Many people are eager to write off any news not favorable to Trump as just another example of dishonesty or bias among a liberal media, a myth that Trump has expertly used to his advantage. So when journalists are confronted with information that hasn’t been adequately confirmed and they publish it anyway, it just plays to that preconception.

As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic: “If the Trump dossier does prove to be full of inaccuracies, it will resurface in debate every time a credible and supported allegation about Trump emerges. Carefully vetted stories will be rejected by partisans who will haul up the haste to post a damaging dossier as proof that no reporting can really be trusted.”

If all of this is consternating to journalists, it must be completely mind-blowing for people who don’t deal with these issues day in and day out. No wonder so many people have given up, either just passing along every chain email or meme they see so long as it confirms their world view, or metaphorically curling into the fetal position in a dark corner of the room.

Here’s a place to start – stop believing stuff just because you want it to be true, and don’t disbelieve information just because you don’t like it.

Roger Plothow is Editor and Publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a yearlong weekly series on media and news literacy.