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What to do About False News

December 18, 2016

Before we can begin a discussion of false news, we have to decide on a couple of things.  These are not simple decisions; they are really making arbitrary divisions in a continuum.  The first one is: what is news?  I’m assuming that news is information based on facts, and that it is not just somebody’s opinion.  From this definition, we can determine what is false news.  It can only be news that’s based on false facts.  Further, we have to ask whether we actually need to do something.

I’m a scientist, one who has published papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Of course, scientific papers are are not the same as news articles, but they can provide a model for news.  Review by scientific peers is part of the model.  The paper also has to be the result of original research.  It has to cite sources of information.  These have to be primary sources, usually other scientific papers, but not secondary sources such as text books.

News articles imply a chain of responsibility, stretching from the publication to the journalist to a verified source of the information.  Still, there can be accusations of bias, made either to the publication or the journalist.  These are easy to make, but difficult to refute.  Sometimes these accusations are accurate and well-known, based on the political views of the publication or the journalist.  Advertizers or commercial interest can also lead to bias.  Of course, publications and journalists are not perfect: all of them have a point of view.

There are two possible ways to deliver news to consumers.  Both have their advocates.  Both can operate at the same time.  It comes down to who decides on what news to view.  If the consumer decides, there will be many possible sources of news.  It will arrive quickly.  This news will necessarily be unverified.  Some sources will repeat the news just by copying it.  In many cases, the consumers also be unable to verify the facts.  All they will have to go by is the reputation of the news source.

If the publisher decides, the news publisher requires verification from their journalists, in order to maintain their reputation and to avoid lawsuits.  Some news stories need little or no investigation.  Think of a report on an earthquake, for example, or an official announcement by government or a company.  Of course, these can still be false or biased, but the likelihood of this is fairly small.  Other news stories, ones involving a long investigation, can be quite expensive.  Somebody has to pay the cost of a proper investigation, as explained in this article.

Some apparent news articles are actually opinion pieces.  Opinion is often more appealing to viewers than hard news.  It’s more exciting.  It’s more engaging.  Sometimes publishers decide that all information from guests must be labelled as opinion.  Guests are not employees of the publisher.  Often the publisher maintains a separation between them and the authors of opinion pieces.  Even though the article may cite facts that can be verified, the publisher doesn’t verify them.  Some news sources even use opinions to provide an approximation of balance, featuring two people with extreme views arguing with each other.

Really, not much has changed in the reporting and delivery of news.  The old rules about which is real and which is fake do still apply.  The main problem now is that some people accept opinion as real news.  Should we be protecting these people from themselves?  I don’t think so.


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