The Guardian has an article about the troubles of traditional journalism, and how “fake news” is dragging it down.
Journalism was vulnerable long before fake news. I wrote about it in 2005, long before I even had a Facebook account.
So let’s get that misconception out of the way.
But let’s talk about the levels of what we call “journalism” because that is a sloppy term in and of itself.
There are levels of journalism?
Yes, but on many levels. We can talk about print, radio, television, and Internet. We can also talk about local, state, national, and international news. We can talk about soft news and hard news, and if all that isn’t confusing enough, we have other scales of journalism:
- Trade journalism: This is a specific form of journalism where reporters have an audience of an experienced professional group. Their publications are about the business of a specific business, such as banking or horse training. I worked as a trade journalist, writing about the business of journalism. Your audience is not a general one. They know the jargon and systems, and you are informing them about the players, new laws, and other important industry-specific goings on for them to keep informed. You are not pulling any heart strings or using colour. It is all business.
- Traditional journalism: The form most general audiences associate with the term. This is more broad and general in its approach, and assumes the audiences doesn’t know the nitty-gritty, such as the jargon or the specifics. Anyone can read the article and get the gist of a story. We see a lot of colour and emotional detailing. Your local newspaper falls into this category, and so does Time magazine. Unlike trade journals, that have a savvy audience who may be experts in the field, traditional journalism will not inform you to the point of becoming an expert. It gives you the head’s up, nothing more. While you may have specialized publications focussing on food or fashion, they are usually owned by a large media conglomerate and follow the same basic structure and rules, the difference being the ratio of “real” stories to “advertorial” stories being greater for larger hard news outlets than either local outlets or specialty titles.
- Alternative journalism: These are usually catering to people under 30 with a smaller focus. A lot of music publications that were all the rage in the 1990s fall into this category, as does the Village Voice. They tend to be more skewed politically, looser with the language and tone, and more likely to cover more obscure and fringe topics. They have a smaller audience, and you more likely need to be in the know on some issues to have an interest in the publication in the first place, such as the concert scene. Gay rights, for instance, was covered in such publications long before traditional media realized there was a big enough audience to cover this demographic.
- Citizen journalism: This would be better named “amateur” journalism. These are usually blogs written by editorially inexperienced writers. There are no rules and no standards here. These also tend to be “the world according to me” and often very niche-specific and partisan; however, the same these days can be said for numbers 2 and 3. These people may be unprofessional in training, but they are not fake news.
- Partisan journalism: These are the “alt-right” or “progressive” ideological publications such as Infowars or Daily Kos. These are openly biased, meant to incite a base, and very skewed in coverage. They are chicken littles on the Internet, assuring the world that yes, the sky is falling. They pick favourites and have no trouble spewing propaganda.
- Satire: Web sites such as the Onion that are political and riff real world happenings, but are humour and do not actually cover real events or quote real people. They make stuff up the way a sitcom writer makes stuff up. This isn’t the “fake news” people are talking about, but these are jokes meant to be taken in jest.
- Fake news: These are the web sites that pretend to be legitimate web sites, but deliberately deceive politically, telling you that a political candidate eats babies so you will not vote for them. These make things up from scratch for a political purpose, and are usually very poorly done.
Those are your seven (basic) layers of journalism, with the cut-off line landing somewhere near the bottom of the list, depending on your purposes.
We can see that journalism is messier and more nuanced than what it first appears. You don’t study to become a trade journalist rather than a regular or alternative journalist: you go where you can find work. You can specialize in print, radio, tv, and online journalism in j-school, but even then, someone with a broadcast degree can easily work in print and vice versa.
The fact that people couldn’t tell the obvious differences between real forms of journalism and the fake ones is interesting. It means that (a) media literacy is nonexistent, and (b) journalists can’t seem to make themselves stand out by the counterfeits.
Fake news is merely exploiting journalism’s various vulnerabilities. That means the solution to combatting fake news is by improving the journalism product, and making information literacy a bigger priority.
It would be much harder, for instance, for fake news to be indistinguishable from real trade news. You need more expertise to be able to pull it off, and there are different structures in place.
Fake news itself wouldn’t be a problem if journalism had a stronger product, but it doesn’t; and so, the troubles become amplified in the bargain.