Learning the news: Defining fake news… again

Less-than-perfect reporting or incomplete information is sloppy, but don’t call it ‘fake news,’ writes Roger Plothow.

I’m sensing a little push-back from some of you.

A couple of recent letters to the editor have suggested that my columns are a bit patronizing or perhaps just a little repetitious. I’ll try to do better.

About the patronizing thing: I can certainly see where that comes from. Sometimes my humor can be misunderstood. This is what my wife, Kathleen, tells me. She often stands at my side repeating quietly, “He means that to be a joke.”

On the other hand, the degree to which many of us accept every little thing we see on the Internet, particularly on our social media streams, is downright scary, with potentially enormous consequences. So, sometimes I poke a little fun.

About repetition: You try to write something fresh on essentially the same topic for 52 straight weeks. (I’m kidding – I signed up for this and knew it would be a challenge. For those not counting, this is No. 34.)

Meanwhile, things seem to be getting worse. It’s now become entirely predictable for people of every stripe and persuasion to invoke “fake news” any time something emerges in the public space they don’t like. The current administration has this down to a science, but the practice is now widespread.

There are various levels of less-than-perfect reporting that stop short of being fake news. Fake news should be defined as a story invented entirely from thin air to entertain or mislead on purpose. There’s plenty of that around, but it’s not as prevalent as it might seem. More common are stories that contain a particular slant or bias, don’t tell the complete story, or are otherwise an attempt at conveying news that falls short of the highest journalistic standards. These are not fake news.

So when the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute accuses a newspaper of publishing fake news because it didn’t provide what the institute’s thinkers thought was adequate context in an editorial, that’s not fake news. Yet here’s what the institute’s Dave Trabert wrote a few months back:

“An editorial in the Wichita Eagle reminded me that it’s been awhile since I wrote about fake news in Kansas, and there’s a lot. The Eagle editorial bemoaned a loss of 400 jobs in February but failed to disclose that private sector employment set a new record! The Bureau of Labor Statistics data comparing February 2016 to February 2017 shows Kansas added 1,300 private sector jobs and shed 1,700 government jobs.”

You can, and should, complain when a news report is incomplete or even is essentially complete but could have provided additional perspective. But that doesn’t make it fake news.

You ask, “What about bias?” That’s a good question. Can journalists be completely objective? And if a reporter’s work is intentionally or unintentionally slanted, even slightly, does that make it fake news? We’re going to wrestle with that one next week, in No. 35 of our series. Stay tuned.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of an yearlong weekly series on media literacy.