Guest column: ‘Fake news’ already a fake term

Finding bad reporting isn’t hard, but it doesn’t justify slapping a “fake news” label on anything that’s less than perfect, writes Roger Plothow.

As the Washington Post wrote last week, the term “fake news,” in general use now for just a few months, has already essentially lost its meaning.

If a story is imprecise, needs a minor correction, or even contains conclusions not universally agreed to, many of us are leaping to the “fake news” accusation. Our president even propounds the idea that polls with which he doesn’t agree are just fake news.

(You doubt me? Here’s the tweet: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”)

It’s so easy to just say “fake news” and assume everyone knows what you mean – avoid this story, it’s made up. President Trump has turned a potential liability into an asset by labeling anything but the most positive coverage as “fake news.”

As the Post’s Callum Borchers wrote: “Once upon a time (like, three months ago), ‘fake news’ had a precise meaning. It referred to total fabrications — made-up stories about Donald Trump suffering a heart attack or earning the pope’s endorsement — and the phrase burst into the political lexicon as Facebook and Google vowed to clean up some of the garbage that had polluted the Internet during the presidential election.”

If you look hard enough – and, I should add, in the wrong places – you’re going to find sloppy journalism, particularly if your sources are internet based, where getting it first is more important than getting it right. Finding evidence of bad reporting isn’t hard, but it doesn’t justify slapping a “fake news” label on anything that’s less than perfect journalism.

Remember how all this started, at least in its current form? It came from the presidential campaign, when truth and civility were early casualties and fanciful stories written by imaginative young people in eastern Europe were accepted as fact on our social media. That stuff was fake news.

One might expect that other things may soon get tagged as fake. Are there “fake courts” when they rule against the president? Trump suggested as much when he referred to a federal judge as “this so-called judge.”

Fake news is a sort of glittering generality turned on its head. The typical definition of the glittering generality is the use of a term that is deemed universally positive to describe something we support. We all agree that justice is a good thing until we drill down to the next level to debate what the word actually means in a particular context. Similarly, it’s easy to say that fake news is bad, but it’s a term that surely comes in handy when we don’t want to be bothered with explaining ourselves further.

This is why, shortly after beginning this Quixotic quest to write once a week for a year on topics related to fake news, I pivoted to something more meaningful and, hopefully, more productive: news and media literacy. Let’s kill this fake news demon before it grows.

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