By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.
I don’t know who originated that line, but editors have been trotting out that trope for decades.
What is often said in jest is seriously intended to inspire a reporter to stay after a story, regardless of the stumbling blocks. The story is out there: Go find it.
Sadly, a lot of people believe newspapers conform stories to preconceived notions, regardless of truth, and that’s led to the growing loss of trust felt by a very legitimate industry. Readers increasingly turn less to print newspapers and more to alternative media. And the younger people are, the more it’s true. Newspapers are probably more factual than at any time since Ben Franklin, but an awful lot of people are turning to Facebook and other social media for the “truth.”
If my hypothesis is true, 2016 was a dastardly year for the dynamics. Newspapers now have to contend both with increasing competition and this new-wave phenomenon known as “fake news.” The issue is essentially those websites or sources that intentionally provide false narratives in an attempt to stir public opinion. Again and again this year, we saw election-oriented postings spread by a gullible (or willing) citizenry, thinking they had a great item to share when actually what they had was a lie circulated by an unethical influencer.
Essentially what they have is gossip, potentially propagated to millions, instead of shared one-on-one, across a backyard fence. And gossip is often a lie. And a lie is a lie is a lie, even when we swear it’s the truth.
Not to single out Facebook, but the biggest player acknowledged its role in fake news-sharing a few weeks back. I don’t think anyone could have guessed a decade ago how a platform for keeping up with friends could become such a juggernaut in passing along false news, but it has happened, and now Facebook is trying to put Pandora back in her box. It’s pledged to change its algorithms and work with various fact-checking organizations on ways to clean up the mess. Good luck with that.
To the extent that it helped to elect him, social media must get credit for the rise of Donald Trump. He is, after all the reigning Titan of Tweets and uses those 140-character bytes to help stir a fire under supporters. By contrast, Hillary Clinton never found a match.
The problem is, our president-elect often seems the purveyor of more fiction that the downtown library. If you wanted fake news this past year all you had to do was rummage through Trump tweets or listen to some of his more outrageous campaign statements. “Obama was the founder of ISIS.” “I know more about war than the generals.” “The election is being rigged by the media.”
Even after he won, he has shown a decided disregard for reality: “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he tweeted Nov. 27.
Talk about an alternate universe. And people are prompt to pass it along.
Trump consistently faults the news media for bias, and occasionally he is right. But he, himself, distorts facts at such an astonishing pace, it’s hard to know what is real news and what is fake. While the real media struggles simply to keep up, the fake media has a field day.
Unfortunately, every time we “like” some untrue element on social media, we contribute to the fakery. When it comes to the surreal reality in which we live, the masses must discern more and hit the share button less.
Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 977-6865.
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH