The Fake News Fake-Out

Peter Shawn Taylor
February 26, 2021
The news business is at its least reliable when reporting on itself. Coverage of a media company’s own financial results, for example, is inevitably glowing and upbeat, whatever the actual figures might say. The same thing holds for concerns over “fake news”. Seizing on recent panic about the spread of misinformation, and thanks to a generous federal grant, Canada’s legacy newspapers have devised their own system for identifying fake news. But as Peter Shawn Taylor discovers, the criteria strangely celebrate their own product at the expense of their many online competitors. And much of it contradicts the basic rules of good journalism.

The Fake News Fake-Out

Peter Shawn Taylor
February 26, 2021
The news business is at its least reliable when reporting on itself. Coverage of a media company’s own financial results, for example, is inevitably glowing and upbeat, whatever the actual figures might say. The same thing holds for concerns over “fake news”. Seizing on recent panic about the spread of misinformation, and thanks to a generous federal grant, Canada’s legacy newspapers have devised their own system for identifying fake news. But as Peter Shawn Taylor discovers, the criteria strangely celebrate their own product at the expense of their many online competitors. And much of it contradicts the basic rules of good journalism.
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Canada’s media industry has finally hit on a permanent solution to the problem of fake news.

Earlier this month, print newspaper subscribers across the country had a surprise when their morning paper – the National Post, Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, Edmonton Journal, Peterborough Examiner, Prince Albert Daily Herald, and Scarborough Mirror among them – arrived with a blank front page devoid of any news.

The “Disappearing Headlines” stunt was meant to draw attention to efforts by News Media Canada, the lobbying arm of the newspaper industry, to recoup a portion of the advertising revenue it has lost to tech giants like Google and Facebook amid the shift in readers from print to social media. In doing so, however, the campaign also unwittingly pointed to a potential solution to another of the mainstream media’s great bugaboos – fake news. If there’s no news on the page, no one can complain that it’s fake.

Assessing the Fake News Problem

One possible solution to fake news: On February 4, newspaper subscribers across Canada found the front page of their paper blank, part of the “Disappearing Headlines” campaign organized by News Media Canada.

Fake news has been constantly in the news since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in 2016. The notion that citizens are being fed a steady diet of untruths and misinformation on social media to distract or confuse them, or possibly foment rebellion, reached a fevered pitch with the appearance of Covid-19 last year. Any information at odds with official pronouncements on the pandemic is now widely considered to be “fake news” and a potential danger to public health.

Despite all the recent attention, however, questions about the veracity of the information provided by the media have been around for as long as there have been printed news sheets. The Yellow Journalism era of the late 19th century, marked by aggressive competition between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, offered readers plenty of highly questionable stories and over-wrought scandals. Later, the tabloid era delivered detailed “coverage” of Bigfoot, alien babies and bizarre celebrity revelations to anyone standing in the grocery checkout aisle.

Nothing new here: While social media have facilitated the rapid distribution of fake or misleading news, complaints about the quality of the news go back much farther; pictured, a famous January 29, 1934 headline from the Los Angeles Times detailing the search for the ancient lair of a super-intelligent race of Lizard People (mis-spelled as Lizard Peolpe) beneath the city.

Fake news cannot properly be considered a product of our current social media era, nor of the Trump presidency. It has always existed. That said, social media have certainly made fake news vastly more accessible. By enabling virtually anyone to generate and disseminate reams of information, the social media can be considered to have democratized fake news.

But how big a problem is it really?

“When I am talking about fake news, I have a very specific definition in mind,” says David Haskell, a professor in the Digital Media and Journalism department at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford, Ontario campus. “It is reporting on an event that never actually happened.” The so-called Pizzagate scandal, in which Obama-era Democrats were purportedly operating a pedophile ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlour, thus qualifies as fake news, given the complete absence of proof that such a thing existed. “I also don’t think Queen Elizabeth is a reptile,” says Haskell, referring to another popular and patently absurd online conspiracy theory. In general, this type of fake news is so obviously phony as to be easily spotted, he notes. “If we define fake news as reporting things that are clearly not true, then to me it doesn’t seem to be a big problem.”

The bigger problem: Laurier University media professor David Haskell says most fake news is easily spotted; of greater concern is the heavy bias in much of the mainstream media’s political coverage.

According to Haskell, however, there’s a second kind of informational trickery that ought to be attracting far more attention than reptilian conspiracy theories: “What we should really be talking about is the current explosion of media bias – when mainstream media organizations report on factual events in ways that make them unrecognizable. And that is a huge problem.”

Most of the reporting on Trump, Haskell observes, was deeply influenced by the opinions of the journalists covering him, overwhelming any effort to objectively report or disinterestedly assess his actions. The same goes for claims from the left-wing press that Conservative politicians in Canada are engaging in conspiracy theories when they claim the Justin Trudeau government is taking advantage of the pandemic to promote a radical “Great Reset” agenda. Accusing people with whom one disagrees of engaging in conspiracy theories has become a subset of the fake news phenomenon, a conversation-stopping technique based on the imputation that the opponent is mongering fake news.

Who Made that SPOT?

However defined, fake news certainly gets a lot of official attention. Convinced that the issue requires public intervention, in 2019 the Trudeau government shelled out $7 million to fight online misinformation in Canada through partnerships with various industry groups and non-profit agencies. More recently Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced an additional $3 million to help Canadians “think critically” about social media information sources.

Arguably the highest-profile effort to appear as a result of this government attention is SPOT Fake News, a public service campaign delivered by News Media Canada and established with a $484,000 grant from Ottawa’s 2019 outlay. It consists of a website, video and ample ad space in participating newspapers across the country – most daily and weekly newspaper subscribers have likely seen these public service announcements. But while the campaign’s stated goal is to show readers how to recognize and avoid fake news, its actual message is rather more complicated – and patently self-serving.

Spotter’s guide to fake news: News Media Canada’s four-step SPOT Fake News campaign received nearly $500,000 from the federal government in 2019.

SPOT is a mnemonic for a four-step method meant to enable readers to uncover unreliable news stories:

  1. Is this a credible Source?
  2. Is the Perspective biased?
  3. Are Other sources reporting the same story?
  4. Is the story Timely?

C2C Journal put these four criteria to the test with a pair of experts in the field. Lydia Miljan is a political science professor at the University of Windsor and a close observer of Canada’s journalism industry. She believes the first question – is the source credible – “seems to be more about protecting the market share [of legacy media] than assessing the veracity of any particular article.” Many of the legacy newspaper industry’s current financial woes can be traced to the proliferation of new online outlets that are nimbler, have lower overhead costs and can cater more directly to the particular interests of reader and viewer segments. Given these competitive pressures, any claim new news sources are somehow less credible than the mainstream press, Miljan suggests, should be seen as a rather transparent effort at self-preservation.  

In today’s endless universe of media sources, Miljan notes that credibility is “not necessarily to be found in the source of an article, but in the merits of what is being said in that article.” The ability of digital news sources to embed evidence directly in stories via hotlinks, for example, allows even small upstart outlets to back up their assertions and prove their points without having to lean on a hundred-year-old masthead to bolster their authority. Brand names and a long reputation were once necessary to establish the reliability of news providers; that’s no longer the case, says Miljan. Proof is what matters now.

Credible sources? According to University of Windsor political science professor Lydia Miljan, credibility is determined by the merit of each individual story, not by the age of the masthead.

The second SPOT rule, whether an article is biased, seems equally redundant, observes media professor Haskell. “This question might have made some sense back in the 1990s when objectivity was still the gold standard of journalism,” he observes. “But today that has been rejected by a plurality of journalists, who now uphold advocacy as their highest ideal.”

Newspapers today revel in their crusading nature. The Toronto Star, for example, is currently engaged in a noisy and unrelenting campaign against the for-profit nursing home sector, a stance that fits within the social justice-themed Atkinson Principles the Star adheres to. There is nothing wrong with a media outlet adopting a strong point of view. A great proportion of journalism necessarily involves some degree of bias. Many European papers, for example, historically aligned themselves openly with one of their country’s major political parties. (Some North American papers did so as well.) But those political allegiances were worn openly, and there typically were competing papers supporting the other parties. That is no longer the case. As Haskell notes, the SPOT campaign “seems to suggest there are some media outlets that aren’t presenting a biased perspective. And that’s a lie. It’s all biased to some degree.”

And sometimes the bias in question is based on inherent self-interest. Consider again those blank front pages of the Disappearing Headlines stunt. This was part of an ongoing, coordinated campaign meant to influence public opinion about the alleged unfairness of the struggle between Big Tech and legacy newspapers. The industry’s preferred solution is to have Ottawa make Google and Facebook pay newspapers for allowing users to share and comment on their stories.

Rolling their own logs: An industry-wide campaign to convince government to force Facebook and Google to pay for sharing their news stories appears to be paying off.

Torstar papers have force-fed their readers a steady diet of articles advocating this particular outcome via a series called Defanging Big Tech. Postmedia has a nearly identical series called Tackling Big Tech. Both media firms are using what remains of their public influence to advocate policies explicitly meant to benefit their own interests. The opposing view, that the newspapers actually encourage readers to share their stories on social media in hopes of reaching more eyeballs (helpfully providing links to facilitate sharing) and that they should probably be paying Facebook and Google for this valuable promotional service, is rarely heard. It seems a rather obvious case of bias, if not a conflict of interest. “It may be self-serving in a sense,” admits John Hinds, president of News Media Canada, in an interview. But such log rolling is necessary, he says, “if you want a free and independent media.”

More importantly, this wholly self-interested approach seems to be working. Ottawa is reportedly on the verge of creating legislation that would force Google and Facebook to negotiate lucrative deals with the legacy media for the privilege of allowing them to share their news content, similar to what Australia recently decreed.   

On the broader topic of ideological bias across the news industry, Miljan’s own ground-breaking research demonstrated that most journalists in Canada are substantially more left-leaning in their political views than the Canadian public they serve. This predisposition, she says, “Has an effect on how the news is reported, as well as what stories the media chooses to report.” It is, Miljan agrees, wholly inappropriate to suggest legacy media outlets are somehow free from bias while others are steeped in it.

Breaking news: Challenging conventional wisdom was once the hallmark of great journalism; now it’s apparently a reason to be suspicious. Pictured (left), murdered independent Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and (right) Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee (far right) following the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

One way for the individual to circumvent or at least ameliorate inherent media bias, notes Haskell, is to peruse a wide variety of media sources. “If everyone read both left and right-wing political views, we’d eventually come to some semblance of what the real facts are,” he ventures hopefully. Curiously, reading widely is not one of the four SPOT Fake News rules.

What’s the Scoop?

Next comes Rule 3, the oddest claim of the SPOT system: are other sources reporting the same story? It was once the greatest dream of any journalist to break a story no one else had, or say something no one else was saying. This ranged from being the first reporter to find out that, say, the recent death of a prominent local citizen has been upgraded to a murder investigation, all the way to uncovering deeply buried facts that influence the course of global affairs. The best writers and broadcasters lived for such opportunities. Their key motivation being to uncover the truth others had missed.

Here we include such legendary scoops  as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate (plus many subsequent “gate” issues) in the United States, and Canada’s own Adscam scandal. While many scoops are a team effort, often the most memorable work is done by individuals determinedly pushing against the grain. One recent and tragic instance is that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the independent Maltese journalist whose fearless exposés on corruption within her country’s political class led to her death in a car-bombing in 2017.

“I find that problematic,” says Miljan of SPOT’s Rule 3, as it suggests readers should be suspicious of all forms of enterprising journalism listed above. Citing her own research, she observes that “we know the product from the commercial media is all very much the same. They provide a homogenous concentration of accepted opinion.”

Being different was once the hallmark of great journalism. Now it is being redefined as a reason to be suspicious it might be fake news. (Galizia’s blogging would have presumably “failed” several SPOT Fake News rules.) This is not only self-serving, in that it suggests whatever the vast array of corporate mainstream media has to say is the only material worth reading, it threatens an end to the bravado and genuine public service of individualistic news reporting.

The final test of fake news, timeliness, may be the only standard promoted by the SPOT Fake News campaign that Miljan and Haskell agree is a fair test of good journalism. And yet Haskell wryly notes that Canada’s current war on its own history has all-but-dispensed with the necessity for relevant news pegs. Merely asserting that a long-dead historical figure is undeserving of his or her current status is now sufficient to generate news, he notes.

The Credibility Challenge

John Hinds, president of News Media Canada.

Asked to respond to the many criticisms levelled at the SPOT Fake News campaign by our experts, News Media Canada president Hinds says the complaints mistake the intent of the effort. The program isn’t meant to muddy the reputation of digital media outlets, burnish the alleged objectivity of legacy brands or do away with scoops, he says. Rather, the goal is much simpler. “We’re telling readers to favour credible journalism over everything else,” Hind notes. “And I don’t think any credible journalist will knowingly put out misinformation. This is a tool meant to help people discern fact from fiction.”

Of course, Hinds’ assertion overlooks the fact many of the most memorable and deliberate examples of fake news – defined as reporting on things that never happened – have come from the legacy media. Here we include the fabulist flourishes of disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and The New Republic’s Stephen Glass, as well as the 1981 Pulitzer Prize won (and then returned) by Washington Post writer Janet Cooke for inventing a heart-breaking tale of a young heroin addict. Going back farther, there’s also Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ credulous Moscow correspondent from the 1920s and 1930s, who gave Stalinist propaganda the appearance of fact by reporting everything the Soviet Union’s Communist apparatchiks told him. Duranty also ignored, or failed to inquire into, the horrific death toll arising from Stalin’s various purges, land seizures, mass executions, and famines.

All these examples involved apparently credible journalists working for apparently credible media outlets who knowingly produced fake news.

Telling lies for Stalin: Walter Duranty (at right) was the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent in the 1920s and 1930s; his reporting was marked by credulous acceptance of official Soviet propaganda.

Despite the current panic being raised by government and the media industry over fake news, however, evidence suggests the public is quite capable of sorting out the facts all on its own. Earlier this month, for example, Statistics Canada released its own study on fake news in response to worries that Canadians were being fed bad intel about the coronavirus online. The survey Misinformation During the COVID-19 Pandemic found that 96 percent of Canadian adults who used the internet had spotted Covid-19 information they deemed to be “misleading, false or inaccurate.” While this might seem to indicate a deluge of phoney information, here is another way to look at it: only 4 percent of the adult population apparently believes everything they see on the internet. Amid all the current concern about fake news, this should be considered a rather heartening result. The vast majority of people are quite capable of sniffing out suspicious information online. A general sense of skepticism is probably the best defence against misinformation, whether the source is government, legacy media or online outlets.

Whose “Truth” Do You Want?

The real and more daunting battle over fake news is far more political than epistemological or technological. The primary challenge is not figuring out whether laser beams from space are causing forest fires in California, but separating the spin from the facts and allowing honest debate to occur.

“There is increasing social pressure not to break from established narratives,” observes Haskell. A case in point, he says, is the current conventional wisdom that Canada is an inherently and systemically racist country – a claim we have apparently imported from the U.S. When National Post columnist Rex Murphy devoted a column last summer to his view that Canada is not a country marked by systemic racism, he was not merely attacked by ideological opponents. Murphy’s words set off an internal revolt among the paper’s younger journalists, many of whom apparently believe that Canada is not only seething with racism, but that nobody should be allowed to argue otherwise. They demanded that their colleague be reprimanded or removed, as has been the case with many heterodox writers and editors at other publications. In the end, the Post appended a notice to the offending column stating that its appearance involved “a failure in the normal editing oversight”.

Breaking with the accepted narrative: A column by National Post correspondent Rex Murphy last summer provoked an internal rebellion at the newspaper over his claim Canada was not a country defined by systemic racism; it also prompted a curious editor’s note (right). (Source of Murphy image: Eric.Parker, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

The intensity of current ideological fervour extends far beyond the media, however. Any deviation from certain official messages has become a firing offence in many organizations. Recall when RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki last summer gave The Globe and Mail her honest opinion about systemic racism in the police force. “I really struggle with the term ‘systemic racism’,” she said. “If systemic racism is meaning that racism is entrenched in our policies and procedures, I would say that we don’t have systemic racism.” Having said what she believed, rather than what she was supposed to say, Lucki was immediately attacked on all sides. It seems likely she would have lost her job had she not promptly recanted everything in favour of the required narrative of pervasive racism.

For Haskell, who ran as a candidate for the People’s Party of Canada in the last federal election, such enforced conformity represents a serious obstacle to free speech and the search for truth. “If everyone is saying something, that doesn’t necessarily make it accurate,” he says. “It just means it has become accepted ideology.” So does SPOT Rule 3 have it precisely backwards? Not exactly, but there’s clearly no firm connection between the number of people or news outlets saying something and its truthfulness.

Instead of pushing back against ideological and political conformity, the mainstream media often play an enthusiastic role in enforcing it. This increasing tendency was recently brought into sharp focus by celebrated investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald. Writing about the efforts of the New York Times and Washington Post to impose ad hoc speech codes on public figures by obsessively tracking their social media activity, Greenwald trenchantly observed that:

Trenchant criticism: Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Greenwald argues mainstream journalists have ceased to act as the defenders of free speech values, and now crusade to “destroy them.” (Source: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Journalists are not the defenders of free speech values, but the primary crusaders to destroy them. They do this in part for power: to ensure nobody but they can control the flow of information. They do it partly for ideology and out of hubris: the belief that their worldview is so indisputably right that all dissent is inherently dangerous ‘disinformation.’ And they do it from petty vindictiveness…whatever the motive, corporate media employees whose company title is ‘journalist’ are the primary activists against a free and open internet and the core values of free thought.”

Greenwald’s career arc lays bare his industry’s demands of conformity. Writing for The Guardian in 2013 he won a Pulitzer Prize and was widely lauded for his role in bringing to light Edward Snowden’s leaks about global government surveillance. Subsequent investigations into animal welfare issues and criticisms of Israel further elevated Greenwald’s standing among the proper-thinking crowd.

But when he decided to debunk Trump-Putin conspiracy theories, Greenwald suddenly became a heretic, earning a hit piece in New York Magazine. His ousting from polite company was completed when he refused to stop investigating the business dealings of U.S. President Joe Biden’s son Hunter during the recent U.S. presidential election. It was his pursuit of this story that caused Greenwald to suddenly resign from The Intercept, an investigative news outlet he had helped found, due to the “extraordinary experience of being censored by my own news outlet.” He is now a wholly independent writer on Substack.

The lesson from the Greenwald Affair: corporately-funded investigative journalism is acceptable only so long as it focuses on targets on the political right. Reporters who aim their uncomfortable questions at the wrong targets can quickly find themselves packing up their desks. That may not in itself be fake news. But it creates a world in which the news becomes one-sided and unreliable.    

Caution: Hard Work Ahead

Separating real from fake news is hard work: The only permanent solution is to read broadly and often.

If there’s one thing SPOT Fake News gets right, it’s where the solution to concerns about the quality of news sources is to be found. It’s not with the producers of the news – however celebrated or esteemed those writers, editors or on-air personalities may be. They will always be subject to their own personal biases. Neither is it a problem that can be solved by the corporate end of the news business, which is laden with its own agendas. Nor through any sort of government interference, including the New York Times’ bizarre suggestion earlier this month that the U.S. needs a government-appointed “reality czar”.

Ultimately, the only credible solution to fake news lies with the public at large. It is the users of the news who have the most important role to play in spotting and discarding fake information and uncovering biases.

“Telling truth from lies in the media has always required hard work on the part of the consumers of journalism,” says Miljan. That hard work includes getting your news from a multiplicity of sources, coming to informed judgements about the credibility of each story and media outlet, and making frequent use of your own critical thinking skills. No one ever said finding the truth was easy. But the last place anyone should look for advice on avoiding fake news is the news business itself.

Peter Shawn Taylor is senior features editor of C2C Journal.

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