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Is fake news a threat to real news? Not really

The only real threat posed by so-called “fake news” is to reporters who are too lazy to do their work right.

I just read an excellent piece “Business of News: Fake News is a Golden Opportunity for Journalists” by Tim Gallagher that appeared this week in “Editor & Publisher.”

His point, succinctly put, is that “Fake news is the best thing that has ever happened to real journalism . . . I mean the kind of journalism that requires serious work.”

He makes the excellent point that most people have no idea what actual news gathering is. I know from experience that a significant number of people look on any kind of writing as being a form of magic, because most people are scared to death of doing it. A lot of people, like “citizen journalists” who operate blogs that purport to do the news think that all you need to do is regurgitate eyewitness accounts, repost rumors or set your “cam” in the middle of a crowd and that will be the equivalent of reporting.

Well, certainly eyewitness accounts are part of reporting. But a major part of reporting is fact-gathering and checking the facts to see if they are, in fact, facts.

If I had a quarter for every time somebody said to me, “I heard a rumor that . . .” I’d be a long way towards independent wealth. Rumors are not the same things as facts, but every time somebody bends my ear with “Hey, I heard that . . .”  that means that eventually I will be on the phone, or composing an email to someone who DOES know, or visiting an authoritative website (and yes, there are such things) to find out what the actual story is.

The public doesn’t know how reporters sift through information, listen to both sides, and maintain an even, balanced view of things. That’s why reporters are often contrarians, asking people who say things with conviction: “Well, how do you know that?” or “What’s your source for that?”

It involves a certain amount of sitting through boring, tedious meetings where you have as much chance of finding a nugget of news as a prospector in Alaska has of finding a nugget of gold. It does take a lot of sifting. It often involves taking what someone says in public and comparing it to the facts.

Skepticism is the best weapon of a good reporter and editor. Of course, it doesn’t make you popular, which is why dining alone is often a good option. There’s an old saying that if a reporter’s grandmother tells him something, that he should double-check the information.

So, what does this have to do with “fake news?” The answer is that as long as real reporters are doing real reporting, such reporting will rise to the surface.

Gallagher writes that recent reporting on the “fake news industry” “exposed the process of creating a fake news story for these websites. If you missed it, it comes down to this: a couple of fake news writers sitting in a room with laptops searching for words that are trending on the internet, and then composing a narrative that uses as many of those words as they can cram into the article. There is no verification. No vetting. Just imagination.” “Imagination” doesn’t belong in the same sentence with “reporting.”

A healthy skepticism on the part of the reading public is also needed if “fake news” is to be resisted. If you read something, particularly on the internet, that strikes you as too fantastic to be true, check it out on several news websites.

At the same time, if you run across a piece of “news” that you really want to be true, but you can’t find it anywhere else, then, sorry, it’s probably fake news.

Be a discerning, critical and skeptical reader and you will be able to protect yourself from fake news. These days, consumers need to be their own most dedicated defenders.

Now go out there and be skeptical!

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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