A handy guide to normal fake news we can read every day Recently I published some items here at MercatorNet about fake news, still a hot topic of public discussion. What we sometimes forget is that media have always been full of fake news. This post is not a compendium; rather, it offers routine examples by type.
When I use the term fake news, I do not mean deliberate sabotage of news sites by, for example, Russia’s troll house. Or opposition research marketed as news. Or false information that merits retraction and results in dismissals as at CNN recently. Nor material that is outed by traditional media sources themselves as fake news. Consider, for example, the BBC’s displeasure at the glut of fake anti-Trump stories (“Many people on the left right now are feeling overwhelmed and fearful and unsure of what's going to happen next”), many of which have also been debunked by Snopes as“patterns of falsehoods.” At some level, the people creating the news have to know that it is fake.
No, I am talking rather about the subtle underlay of easy but questionable narratives that flow constantly and unconsciously through media. We assume that media cover stories that way because, well, that’s just the way they do things! Let’s look at ten examples:
1. Context-free statistics: What are we really measuring?
We often hear alarming statistics in media. Without context (background information), we don’t really understand what the numbers mean. Take crime rates: Despite what the public believes, apart from hot spots, crime rates have been falling in North America north of the Rio Grande over recent decades. Many claim to know why; usually they credit their own excellent, but conflicting, policy advice.
Here is a tip: Always look at the demographics first. Demographics is the closest that social science comes to hard science. We cannot change the number of babies born alive on the planet in a given year. Neil Howe explains at Forbes,
Youth crime rates started to rise in the late ‘60s, just as the first wave of Boomers entered the youth age bracket. For the next couple of decades, Boomers and first-wave Xers took youth violence to spectacular heights.
It wasn’t until the late ‘90s and early ‘00s—just as Millennials entered the scene— that crime rates began their sharp descent. Unlike Boomers and Xers, Millennials were increasingly looked after, sheltered, and advised to not take risks. As they moved up the age ladder, this generation brought about declines in risky behaviors—including rates of school fighting, teenage pregnancy, smoking, drunk driving, and so on. (See the extensive CDC database on the decline in so-called “youth risk behaviors.”) Of these trends, crime was just one element.
To say nothing of the fact that the population is aging. Not so great a proportion of the public is in the age groups prone to violent crime.
Fake news often retails numbers that sound alarming but we should try putting them in context before reacting, and especially before agreeing to a radical new policy.
2. Reporting alarming trends without context
We’ve all heard that many university students today simply move into Mom’s basement after graduation as opposed to starting a career. Pew Social Trends told us in May 2016 that “For first time in modern era, living with parents edges out other living arrangements for 18- to 34-year-olds.”
It sounds ominous, especially when the stories run during graduation season. But what do they really tell us? From studying the Pew figures, data management company Earnest noted in November 2016 (some distance in time, readers will note, from the graduation rush) two things:
1) Math and engineering majors were first to leave the nest: “But for bachelor’s and associate’s degree seekers, major matters. For both degrees, STEM students are less likely to live at home than are non-STEM majors. Associate’s degree-holders in STEM are also more independent than holders of STEM or non-STEM bachelor’s degrees. Again, this may be due to the higher student loan burden faced by graduates of 4-year schools.”
2) “Having a graduate degree in any discipline matters more than having it in any particular one: those with master’s degrees – in STEM or not – live at home in the lowest numbers.” (November 29, 2016)
Business Insider’s analysis in December 2016 offers some more useful information:
More adults live with their parents in places like Hawaii and the New York metropolitan area—areas where the cost of living, and thus the bar one must clear to live independently, is high.
Our data suggest that people who live at home do so because they can’t afford to live independently. This group makes an average annual income of around $6,000. That’s not enough to pay the rent, no matter which state you live in.
The New York Times cites the case of a young woman $78,000 in debt for a Harvard Theatre degree: “ Katierose Donohue still pays almost as much in student loans each month — about $650 — as for her share of the rent in Los Angeles.” The Washington Post bemoans the high cost of living as the cause of young-adult dependency, apparently forgetting that a university education should enable a graduate to afford what others can.
A post-grad degree definitely improves the picture, says Business Insider. But
students of the hard sciences, plus law and education, are more likely to live away from home, whereas students of the humanities and “soft” sciences like psychology have more trouble leaving the nest.
In short, what’s often buried far down in the gloomy grad story-of-the-month is that undergrad arts degrees (especially those that offer a poorly defined or infrequently needed skill set like theatre management) don’t usually lead to paying jobs. They can lead to decades of poverty and dependence. But failure to recognize economic realities is the culprit here, not university in general or even debt in general.
Presenting such a story without analysis of the underlying factors can be an insidious form of fake news. Readers may be encouraged to support a fashionable plank in a political party’s platform, such as loan forgiveness or free university, without considering the long-term consequences. A better investment would be a more honest discussion with students about their career chances with a specific degree.
3. Extrapolations of trends into infinity in a finite world
There is a saying in media that it takes three to make a trend. But those three examples may never see a fourth. Most trends do not continue. As Business Insider warned in 2011,
if the current trendline holds, then the average household's health insurance will cost $300,000 in today's dollars in a few years. Does anyone seriously believe this runaway expansion of healthcare is remotely sustainable?
As stock market Bulls are about to discover, the one thing we know about trends is that they do not continue on to the Moon as per extrapolation lines neatly drawn with a ruler. They flatten, reverse or crash.
Yes, just another ripple in the stream of life.
Extrapolation of trends makes for frightful fake news: If the local teen crime rate has increased sharply, soon every student will be an inmate, right? Well, what if careful study shows that the trend is fuelled by the relocation of a high school. Similarly, the crime rate might “fall” if certain offenses are stricken from the books or not generally investigated by the police due to budget cuts or cultural sensitivity.
Overall, fake news about trends makes it hard to evaluate public policy but the remedy, in this case, is simple. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus concluded, everything changes—including the current trend.
4. False and prejudiced history repeated so often it becomes fact
Do you remember when the Catholic Church burned Copernicus at the stake for suggesting that Earth orbited the sun? Me neither. Popular science writing frequently retails false history.
In one recent example, many media outlets informed us that the Bible must be wrong because it states that the Canaanites were exterminated. But modern genetic studies showed that descendants survived the massacres. As a matter of fact, as David Klinghoffer painstakingly details, we can learn in many places in the Bible that the Canaanites survived. Yet the sources of plainly false information were grudging in their corrections:
Even the reputable journal Science, in a reporting article, had to backtrack with an editor’s correction, blandly styled as an “update”:
“This story and its headline have been updated to reflect that in the Bible, God ordered the destruction of the Canaanites, but that some cities and people may have survived.”
Not “may have survived.” In the Bible’s account, they definitely survived, in large numbers. The original headline? “Ancient DNA counters biblical account of the mysterious Canaanites.” It should be, “Ancient DNA confirms biblical account…”
But that would be expecting too much. James Hannam offers many other examples at First Things,
As it happens, much of the evidence marshaled in favor of the conflict thesis turns out to be bogus. The Church never tried to outlaw the number zero or human dissection; no one was burnt at the stake for scientific ideas; and no educated person in the Middle Ages thought that the world was flat, whatever interpretations of the Bible might imply. Popes have had better things to do than ban vaccination or lightning conductors on churches. The thought of a pope excommunicating Halley’s Comet is absurd, but this has not prevented the tale of Calixtus III doing just that from entering scientific folklore. More.
This particular type of fake news misleads readers as to the nature and source of controversies around science, including some in which much is at stake. For example, if the UN wishes to export currently fashionable gender dysphoria to less developed countries and indigenous churches oppose it, why should we assume that the UN experts are right and that church members should buy their little boys princess costumes?
5. Pigeonholing stories in a way that misleads the reader about the issues
Peter Steinfels explained the problem clearly in the New York Times (Nov. 22, 2003),
You can't analyze religion with categories like “liberal” and “conservative”' that ultimately stem from politics. Everyone who regularly writes about religion has heard that complaint, and felt some sympathy with it.
Many religious conflicts or controversies just don't break down into two sides; sometimes there are three, four or more. And even in those cases where there is a clear-cut division between those who favor a change and those who oppose it, the contending camps frequently don't translate nicely into liberal and conservative. More.
He made clear, however, that he thought the distortion was “unavoidable.” Few media folk felt they needed to take heed and the long, slow decline of traditional media probably accelerated a tiny bit as a result. People who care about religious issues went elsewhere for real news.
The main fake news damage done by these inappropriate labels is the false picture that circulates among non-adherents. The non-adherent may believe that a religious denomination is “going conservative” when it acts on complaints about a thrice-divorced clergy counselor or that it is “going liberal” when it helps fund an AIDS hospice. He gains no sense at all of the religious underpinnings of these decisions. So score one for continued ignorance and bigotry.
6. Treating only one side of the story as news
Our eyeballs freeze on a horrific tale of abuse and injustice. But what if the situation is complex and we are hearing only one point of view?
Some decades ago, I remember a journalist complaining in a major Canadian paper about the cruel housing commissioners who were failing to provide adequate housing for immigrant single mothers with four or more children. They were putting them at the bottom of the list for multi-bedroom units. She made the commissioners look very bad indeed.
The problem was, as they pointed out in a polite letter to her, the women who were at the bottom of the list had misrepresented the number of children they might bring to Canada when they applied for housing help. Perhaps, for example, they had said two but the correct number was four. To put them at the top of the list would mean bumping women who were also waiting in crowded conditions for larger apartments—but had admitted that they had four children. If social justice is the issue, why, exactly, is bumping the honest applicants supposed to be fair? This sort of uncritical advocacy has been called “sob sister” journalism.
It happens in consumer reporting too. Don Surber notes, “Fake News is less expensive to produce than real news. Consider all those 60 Minutes investigations over the last half-century that were merely the plaintiff's side of a class action lawsuit.” Sob sisters distort complex events so much that the audience doesn’t learn enough of the story to justify hearing it.
7. “Ten Best” and “Top Ten” lists
Some “Ten Best” and “Top Ten” lists are pretty honest. In sports, for example, hard numbers matter. One can quibble about whether the top scorer had easier opponents than the runner-up but, according to the agreed rules for keeping the stats, 50 goals beats 43. And over the long run, statistically average situations outnumber unusual ones.
It’s a bit different with thinkers and filmmakers or their books and films. In end-of-year lists and so forth, subjectivity plays a much bigger role. Time Magazine’s Top Ten Best and Worst Movies, compiled by staff, involves much more subjective judgment. It is somewhat evangelistic and often wrong.
Herman Melville’s iconic Moby Dick (1851) was a flop with the critics. Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life bombed at the box office (1946). Similar examples abound. Whatever the critics were praising as classic back then may be long forgotten now.
Critics generate a buzz in the hope that readers share their attitudes, values, beliefs, and goals. Sure, lists are fun but they are very often fake news about stars that never were and never will be. And they are never a substitute for cultivating good personal judgment.
8. Prophecies are news but failed prophecies are not…
Have you ever noticed that the first cloned woolly mammoth always seems to be two years away? Paleoanthropologist John Hawks calls such predictions fake news. Indeed, there are many significant obstacles to a real-life Jurassic Park. But did anyone other than Hawks notice that the predictions have failed?
Prophecy is a popular form of fake news because, for example, two years is just enough time for us to be distracted by other prophecies. At Forbes, Dennis T.Whalen offers us a number of predictions for 2016 that did not happen, including:
Forget phones, wearables are the hottest thing going! Turning to technology, this wasn't such an unreasonable prediction, the logic of several industry watchers being that the Apple Watch would inspire all of us to cover our bodies in sensors and Bluetooth-enabled gadgets. The smartphone revolution led many of us to think that it's all about gadgets, but the truth is that most of us are happy with just a phone. For several years now, the next big thing, whether it's been tablets or Bluetooth earpieces or smartwatches has failed to see anywhere near the level of adoption of the smartphone. Let's be honest about the real reason for this, too: we have a hard enough time remembering to plug in even one device every night.
Buzz-friendly predictions rarely harm the reputation of the prophet but they can lead the rest of us to make bad decisions.
9. Polls that are really campaign tools (push polls)
At the New York Times, Marjorie Connelly explains push polls: “The questions are skewed to one side of an issue or candidate, the goal being to sway large numbers of voters under the guise of survey research.” The most systematic type of push poll purports to be an opinion poll but is actually intended to portray a rival political candidate in a negative light. The results are then marketed as news. A variation on the election push poll is the persuasion poll that keeps asking us our opinion about issues we haven’t thought about (Do you honestly think that the local water is safe?). Or don’t care about (Should indoor cats be required to have licenses for their own safety?). Such polls are fake news because they create the impression of widespread doubt or concern when they are, in reality, sponsored by a few highly motivated individuals.
10. Studies show…
There are now millions of studies in the world and most of us can analyze very few of them. Many of these studies are of poor quality, especially in contentious fields such as social sciences and nutrition. But these are the very fields whose findings are widely touted in popular media. When treated as some kind of truth, they are a form of fake news.
Jonny Anomaly and Brian Boutwell lament at Quillette:
Chances are you’ve found yourself in a heated conversation among a group of friends, family, or colleagues when someone throws down the gauntlet: “Actually, studies show…” Some nod in silent agreement, others check their text messages, and finally someone changes the subject.
It’s hard to know what to say when people cite scientific studies to prove their point. Sometimes we know the study and its relative merits. But most of the time we just don’t know enough to confirm or refute the statement that the study is supposed to support. We are floating in a sea of information, and all we can do is flounder around for the nearest buoy to support a view that’s vaguely related to the conversation. More.
The fact that we are not able to analyze the studies does not obligate us to accept the information provided as a truth. Not only can a study be wrong, so can dozens or hundreds of them. Without further information, we should just use our own best judgment while avoiding useless social conflict.
Another type of fake news is insinuation. If media frequently hint that the mayor is suspected of corruption, they may never need to defend their claims. They needn’t fear libel either if they make no specific accusation. They merely plant the idea and repeat it until it festers. Then there is the fake news practice is treating only the figures on one side of a controversy as experts. The ones on other side are mere dissidents, regardless of the state of the evidence. Readers who examine news stories thoughtfully will doubtless come up with many other categories of fake news as well. It’s fun, usually free, and any number can play.
Any chance of finding real news?
Meanwhile, at the Omaha World-Herald, Micah Mertes offers us a seven-tip survival guide, “How to be a better news consumer.” For example,
3. Double-check. Then check again.
Maria Marron, dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL): “It is worth keeping in mind the old adage, ‘If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.’ ”
Chad Lorenz, news editor at Slate, Omaha native, UNL alum: “Always find multiple sources, at least two, if you think that you’ve read something that is news. You can’t trust it unless you’ve at least read it in a couple different places that are distinctive media entities. Even that doesn’t necessarily prove that something’s true. Readers need to understand if the information is not attributed to some official source in the article, then that’s also a reason to be skeptical. It just takes careful reading, which, unfortunately, is also time-consuming. That is what’s required to be a good news consumer: to closely read and try to understand where the information is coming from.”More.
The good news is that there has never been more free information available. But with the riches come the responsibility to use our resources wisely.
Part I: What is fake news? Do we believe it?
Part II: Does fake news make a difference in politics?
Part III: What can we do about fake news that would not diminish real news? Critics of 'fake news' should go to China — only the government has the right to post fake news.
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.