I hate how people are throwing around the term “fake news.” Technically, there’s no such thing.

There’s news — and then there’s propaganda, rumor, satire, lies, slander, gossip, innuendo, unconfirmed reports, opinion, hearsay, commentary, rhetoric, comedy, hyperbole, send-before-midnight infomercials, “political speech” and tweets.

There’s a difference, and the people who publish the news have traditionally done a crummy job of explaining themselves. News, as practiced for years by “ink-stained wretches” like myself (I worked in five Maine newsrooms and was a national correspondent based in Washington, D.C.) is a meticulously researched, vetted, double-checked, precisely written and edited product.

What you read or watch from a traditional news operation has routinely been reliably sourced, verified and very carefully written, for two main reasons:

• The reporters and editors subscribe to a strict code of ethics.

• They don’t want to be sued. (Publishers frown on that.)

In the typical American newsroom of a mainstream newspaper like the one you’re reading, a reporter will call her sources and write the story that forms from her notes. That draft then goes to the reporter’s editor — in larger newspapers, to another editor or two — before it gets placed on the page. Mistakes like misspellings, unverified assumptions, insertion of opinion or other errors are screened out. Controversial stories get even more stringent review before they see the light of day. And when they make mistakes, journalists admit them and hold themselves accountable.

Here’s how information via Twitter reaches its audience. Somebody types it into their smartphone and hits a button. Done.

Internet-based sites like BuzzFeed are somewhere in the middle. They may have editors on staff, but the whole operation has been seduced by a technology and culture that value speed over accuracy.

Please, dear reader, understand: Just because it lit up our smartphone screen doesn’t mean it’s the truth, the whole truth or anything close to the truth. Toddlers can type. Monkeys can type. All that Twitters is not gold.

We need to all step back and pay closer attention to the stark differences between solidly sourced, carefully reported news and the latest tweet from whoever has the fastest thumbs. Citizens reacting — or overreacting — to unsubstantiated or flatly incorrect information is not a new problem in our society (the Salem witch trials come to mind), but technology has exacerbated the problem.

Today, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a smartphone can instantly “publish” anything they like, so it’s become everybody’s job to think like an editor, starting with the classic question: “Sez who?”

Who said it? What do they have to gain? What’s their history on this issue? Do they represent one political philosophy or another? Is this information backed up by independent research, or is it opinion disguised as fact? By the way, PUTTING IT IN CAPITAL LETTERS DOESN’T MAKE IT TRUE, EITHER.

There’s no reason why “citizen journalists” — another term I heartily dislike — can’t use the new technology effectively and for the public good, by observing guidance such as the code put forth by the Society of Professional Journalists.

“Though Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media are new to the market, it does not excuse journalists using those platforms from the evolving rules and ethics of journalism,” writes Alex Veeneman, a Chicago-based journalist and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee.

“The Society’s Code of Ethics calls for journalists to seek truth and report it, and that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Seek truth and report it presents a two-fold role in the social media age — informing audiences with the most up-to-date information but also using it to get the facts, verifying user generated content and help it tell the most accurate and impartial story possible.”

Last week, National Press Club President Thomas Burr issued a statement on the topic, which said in part:

“With the proliferation of false news stories dotting the internet, it is important for American leaders to discern the difference and not intentionally conflate misleading and fake stories from dogged and investigative news that is fundamental to our country.”

Don’t get me wrong. Journalists are not high priests, free from human failings. But the ones I’ve known try very, very hard to be fair and accurate. To those professionals, words matter, and “fake news” is a dangerous contradiction in terms.

Chet Lunner of Cape Elizabeth is a former reporter, newspaper editor and correspondent who was the founding president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Maine Chapter.

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