What is Just?

Fake News: What is It?

The President regularly accuses major media outlets of spreading fake news.

The President’s Claims of Fake New

It is difficult in a post like this to address all of the various incidences in which the President has accused the media of being fake.  (You can read a somewhat comprehensive list here). Here are just three examples:

After his inauguration, the President criticized the fake news for minimizing the crowd turnout at his inauguration.

The President was criticized for suggesting that Sweden had experienced a terrorist attack very recently when it actually had not. And he accused the media of reporting fake news on this issue.

Investigations into a possible collusion between the President’s campaign and Russia heated up. And the President once again accused the Fake News of stirring up trouble.

What Exactly Does He Mean by Fake News?

Since the President accuses the media of being fake so frequently, it is pretty natural to wonder what exactly he means by the term fake news. And it is also reasonable to wonder if he is accurate in these criticisms. To my knowledge, the President has never clearly explained what he means by fake news. So I will have to make an educated guess about his meaning.

Before I do that, however, I would like to look at what the term fake means in common usage regarding news. And I would also like to look at few other news-related words: inaccurate, unethical, and biased news.

Real Fake News

In common usage, the word fake means entirely made up or a copycat of something real. For instance, if we were to speak of fake story, it would be a story that someone made up and had no actual bearing in reality. As another example, a fake diamond is a piece of material that looks like a diamond but that is made of cheap, look-a-like material.

In common usage, fake news is the type of news we might see in the National Enquirer. For instances, stories like “Rural Farmwife Gives Birth to Two-headed Alien” or “Elvis Seen Windsurfing Near Shores of Mediterranean Island” are certainly fake news. We recognize that these stories are fake because they have no basis in reality. They are often completely fabricated or based on facts taken wildly out of context.

This is quite a bit different from the way legitimate news sources operate.

Journalistic Codes of Conduct

Real news reporters are required to adhere to basic journalist standards and ethics. For instance, the Society of Professional Journalists has a basic code of ethics, that members must follow. It contains ethics standards such as these:

Journalists are required to

“Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing, or summarizing a story.

Gather, update, and correct information throughout the life of a news story.”

Ethical standards like this are pretty common for most major news reporting agencies. (For example, here is the Handbook of Values and Practices for the New York Times. Here is the Ethics Handbook for NPR.)

That isn’t to say that the journalists of these news agencies always adhere to these journalistic standards. It does mean, however, that there is some standard to which journalists are held. And they can be fired or publicly shamed if they don’t follow the standard.

Unethical News

And this is one of the key differences between tabloids and real journalistic organizations. Tabloids do not have a code of ethics. Or if they do, they do not really hold their writers accountable for following these ethics.

Because of this, tabloid news is often unethical. That is because the people writing for tabloids are not following any clear rule of journalistic conduct. Instead, they are writing what sells, without any serious consideration to how their news affects their readers.

There is another kind of news we must examine. And that is inaccurate news. Inaccurate news is quite a bit different from fake news. News can be inaccurate without being fake.

Inaccurate News

Inaccurate news, I suggest, is news that is indeed based in reality but the report mistakes or misconstrues details.

So, for instance, a reporter might report on an accident and give inaccurate details about how many people were involved in the crash. Or he might  or the names of the people involved. (Newspapers often include corrections at the end of stories when they learn that details of the story are in error.)

Inaccurate news is certainly a concern. After all, the public relies on the news to gain information about public incidences like accidents, political issues, and the state of the economy. If the news is inaccurate all the time, it is certainly not helpful.

However, there are different levels of severity when it comes to news inaccuracies. Certainly it is much more concerning when a journalist reports an inaccurate fact about a war than it is when a journalist inaccurately reports the street name in which a car collision occurs.[1]

And it is much more serious when a journalist purposely reports inaccurate news for ulterior motives (such as a bribe) than it is when a journalist simply reports inaccurate news by accident with no ulterior motive.

Of course, consequences could still be dire in the latter case. But it would not have the added layer of moral culpability. When a journalist reports inaccurate news from ulterior motives, the news is both inaccurate and unethical.

The point is that inaccurate news can certainly be serious. But not all journalistic inaccuracies are equal in severity.

Biased News

In addition to fake news, inaccurate news, and unethical news, there is also biased news.

In its broadest meaning, bias can just refer to an inclination someone has towards one thing or another. For instance, growing up in Oregon, I developed a bias towards rainy days over sunny days. I also tend to have a bias towards brown hair because everyone in my family has brown hair.

When the word bias is used to describe news, it usually refers to news that seems to favor one political party or one political candidate. Quite frequently, people speak of a news source as having a liberal or conservative bias.

It is important to note, I think, that if we take the word bias in its broadest sense—a general inclination towards one thing or another–it is impossible to have completely unbiased news.

Whenever newspapers publish, they must choose from literally millions of possible news stories they could cover. And in order to make such a decision, they have to use criteria concerning what news is newsworthy.

Once they choose what news to cover, journalists must decide what words they will use to describe that news. For instance, if a reporter writes a news story about a dog getting loose and attacking someone, there are a number of ways she could report on the news.

She could report that this dog getting lose is just a fluke. Or she could report that the dog incident represents a larger public problem. She could report on people’s response to the incident as reflecting common stereotypes about certain types of dogs. Or she could report on the way in which animal control is slow to respond to complaints about loose animals in the neighborhood.

The point is that the journalist must choose a particular way of framing the story. And the only way she can do this is by making certain assumptions about what counts as important, relevant, and priority news. All reporters believe that some story angles are more important, relevant, or of greater priority than others.

So the question is not whether a news source is biased because all news sources contain some bias. The question is whether a new source is unfairly biased.

Many news organizations have rules journalists must follow to avoid unfair bias. For instance, reporters must interview a wide variety of people with different views on the issue. And, as another example, they must avoid clearly biased and inflammatory language in their article.

For example, the Society for Professional Journalists states that reporters must “Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.”

The Society also says that reporters must “Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the way the ways their values and experiences my shape their reporting” and that journalists must “label advocacy and commentary”, to alert their audiences to the fact that the piece is an opinion piece.

Certainly journalists and newspapers do not always avoid unfair bias. Nevertheless, the more a newspaper or news source follows accountability rules, the better it does at this.

This morning as I am typing this post, I looked at three different news sources online. New York Times (which is often considered to have a liberal bias). Fox News (which is often considered to have a conservative bias). And Breitbart (which is often considered to have a very conservative bias and some alt-right ideology). Here are the top three stories for each:

New York Times

Trump Heads South, Leaving Washington Reeling

Speculators Make a Fast Buck from Storm’s Misery

Trump Issues New Policy Aimed at Transgender Troops

Fox News

Hero French Cop Who Sacrificed Self to Save Hostages in French Terror Attack Dies of Injuries

Trump Orders Transgender Troop Ban Except in “Limited Circumstances”

Family of Four Vanishes, Found Dead in Tourist Complex Condo


Left Wing Directed and Funded Teens Descend on DC for Anti-Guns “March for Our Lives”

Trump’s Pentagon Deep Sixes Obama’s Transgender Ideology

Chinese Government Determined to Strike Back Against Tariffs

What Do We Notice?

As we can see here, all three of these news sources focus on different issues, although all three of them have a story about transgender bill issues. In addition, two of the news stories use, at some point, strong words or ideas that could be considered biased or inflammatory: “reeling”,  “Left Wing Directed and Funded”.

It appears that Fox news wins the award today for using the least potentially biased or inflammatory language. However, in my experience, Fox News often uses this kind of language in its headlines, too. [2]

The point here is that is impossible to erase all bias in the media. The goal is that journalists work to overcome unfair bias.

Back to the President

I have examined the difference between fake news, inaccurate news, unethical news and biased news. And I have done this because I want to examine more in depth the President’s use of the term fake news.

As I mentioned before, to my knowledge, the President has never clearly defined what he means by fake news. But given the way he uses the term in his speeches and tweets, he appears to be implying three things: 1) Fake (for the President) means inaccurate. 2) Most or all major media organizations are fake and, therefore, inaccurate 3) The media cannot be trusted.

Let me examine each of these claims

Claim One: Fake means inaccurate.

As I have discussed above, fake news is quite a bit different from inaccurate news.

Fake news is news that is 1) entirely fabricated. Or 2) has no basis in reality or is based on a few details taken out of context. And 3) follows no journalistic standards.

When the President accuses media sources of spreading fake news, he cannot mean 1). If news sources were spreading completely fabricated news (like the two-headed alien baby), it would be easy to prove this.

If the President means either 2) or 3), he needs to explain specifically how the news source is committing problems 2) and 3). And to my knowledge, he has never given specific evidence to prove these claims.

That does not mean he is right or wrong in his claims. It just means that if he is going to make a serious claim like this, it is only fair that he back up his claim with evidence.

If he means inaccurate rather than fake, he also needs to provide evidence for this. And this leads me to the next claim.

Claim Two: Most or all media organizations are fake and, therefore, inaccurate.

This is a major, comprehensive claim. And it is not clear what exactly the President means by this. Does he mean that all major news sources make reporting mistakes sometimes? If that is his claim, then it is an unimpressive claim. Every single news source, whether it is conservative or liberal, makes mistakes sometimes.

What he seems to mean, instead, is that all or most major news sources make big mistakes with the intent to mislead the public.

Now, of course, the President can make this claim. But this is a really serious and comprehensive claim to make. And the more serious and comprehensive the claim one makes, the more evidence one should have to back up the claim.

What evidence would the President have to produce to support this claim? He would have to do a comprehensive survey of all the major media sources. And he would have to show that in most of their stories, there were major factual inaccuracies. Lastly, he would have to demonstrate that the media sources publishes these inaccuracies with the intent of deceiving and misleading the public.

To my knowledge, the President has never engaged in this kind of comprehensive study. Nor has he produced any consistent evidence to support this claim.

Claim Three: The Media cannot be trusted.

If media stories regularly had major inaccuracies in their news stories, it would indeed be the case that these stories could not be trusted. The President has not provided evidence that this is so. Indeed, the media regularly reports accurate details about events such as presidential elections, stock market information, and details about wars and terrorist activities.

For instance, no major news source has claimed things like “No Terrorist Attacks are Happening Anymore!” or “Gun Owners are Storming Washington DC to Take Over the White House”. If they were reporting things like this, they certainly could not be trusted.

It seems that in the major details, the media absolutely can be trusted.

What is the Impetus Behind the President’s Claim?

If the news is not fake or grossly inaccurate, what is the reasoning behind the President’s claim? It seems that when the President accuses the media of being fake, it is usually because the media is reporting about issues surrounding his presidency. And further, he does not like the particular take they have on the event or issues.

The President is absolutely welcome to dislike the way the media represents his presidency. However, the question is whether his objection to their reporting is rooted in more personal and subjective reasons or if it is rooted in a deep desire to hold journalists to a higher code of journalistic conduct than they are now following.

If the President’s motive is the latter, then he should be very clear about these things:

1. What higher code of journalist conduct does he believe journalists should follow?

2. Does his code include clear safeguards against fake news, inaccurate news, unethical news, and biased news? How so?

3. What credentials and expertise give him the authority to propose this new code of journalistic conduct?

4. Is he himself following this code of journalistic ethics? Does he scrupulously avoid reporting fake, inaccurate, unethical, or biased news?

In regards to the last point, if we examine the President’s own tweets and political statements, there is a problem. It appears that he says things with somewhat regularity that he either knows are untrue or is not sure if they are true.

He demonstrated this recently when in a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he made claims which he admitted that he made up on the spot. (You can also read more about that here.)[3]

Why Does This Matter? It might be tempting to assume that the President’s squabbles with the media do not really matter. But I think it would be a mistake to assume this.

The news plays an invaluable role in a democracy. Ideally, is the friend of the people and is not the puppet of any particular president, supreme court justice, or congress person. This means that when these leaders misbehave, media sources can make sure that the people know exactly what their leaders are doing. And the people can vote to hold these leaders accountable.

And, indeed, the media has often done a great job of protecting the people and confronting political leaders who abuse their power. One of the clearest examples of this is when journalists got a hold of the Pentagon Papers. These were classified documents showing that U.S. leaders continued to send troops into Vietnam long after they clearly knew there was no way they could win the war.

Journalists Woodward and Bernstein also covered the Watergate scandal and exposed Nixon’s crimes. This led to his resignation.[4]

The media, ideally is a powerful weapon of the people for holding powerful leaders accountable. Because of this, political leaders who wish to exercise their power without any or, with little accountability, often try to villainize the media. Nixon, for instance, had a notoriously bitter relationship with the media.[5]


The President has often suggested that in his battles with the media, he is the friend of the common person. He often also suggests that the press is the enemy of the people.  If Donald Trump is really a friend of the people, he will champion and  follow a high code of journalistic ethics. He will support any media source that does the same. And he will also avoid making vague and unsupported criticisms of journalists.


[1] I realize that there are instances in which misreporting a street name could be quite serious indeed. My point is that there are some inacurracies that are more serious than others.

[2] In my experience, The New York Times generally does a better job of this than Fox, and Breitbart. But don’t take my word for it. You can check in on these news sources yourself.

[3] It also appears that the President regularly makes inaccurate or false comments. For example, when he reported that Sweden had experienced a terrorist attack the previous Friday, it appears he was referring to a news story he had heard on Fox News. This story argued that terrorist crime is on the rise in Sweden. In addition, he also suggested that recordings of his famous pussy-grabbing discussion were made-up. Later, he admitted on the campaign trail that this was his voice, and he apologized. (It should be noted that the first was a statement he made to the public; the second was a statement he made to some of his staff.)

Lastly, he and Sean Spicer both said that the President’s inauguration crowd was the largest of any inauguration. Neither the President nor Spicer explained how they concluded this. And photos comparing President Trump’s inauguration crowd with the inauguration crowds of previous presidents suggest otherwise. Spicer has since apologized for this statement.

[4] The recent movie The Post does a nice job of exploring the media’s role in the Pentagon Papers incident.

[5] It is true that the media messes up sometimes. However, when people accuse the media of failing to serve the people, people should precisely point out how a particular new source fails to live up to journalistic standards of excellence. And we should hold the same standard for all news sources.

For instance, it is quite easy to rail against the “liberal media” or the “conservative media”. It is not quite as easy to have a clear view of journalistic standards; explain precisely how a particular news source fails to uphold these standards; and then to hold our favorite news source to these same standards.

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