In the wake of a bitter presidential election, a new phrase has entered the daily American political conversation: “fake news.”

As the following chart indicates, the phrase “fake news” was not entirely new to news articles and web pages before Election Day, but its use spiked shortly afterward (Google Trends 2016) triggered by reaction to a New York Times article using the term (Rogers & Bromwich 2016).

What is “fake news,” anyway? It’s not the appearance of an opinion about whether some action is morally good or bad. We can disagree with such an opinion, but that doesn’t mean the existence of the opinion isn’t real. Fake news is also not the same as satire, a form of writing perfected in old books like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (Swift 1729) and newer websites like The Onion (The Onion 2017) that are meant to be obviously ironic, reporting the opposite of the truth in order to comment in some way upon the truth. Fake news is more insidious: it is the reporting of falsehood as if it were true, using language that expresses seriousness and sincerity.

The problem with fake news is that it can be difficult to tell apart from “real news”; the only difference is that the claims made by fake news are false, while the claims made by real news are true. But how is a reader looking at a news article supposed to know the difference?

A popular standard among journalists is the “reputable source” (Burgoyne and Hambrick 2017; Ferlazzo 2017). Some news outlets – typically long-published newspapers and large-budget broadcast channels – are supposed to have a reputation for accuracy and a reliance on other reputable sources for inside information. By contrast, some other publications – typically new and with low budgets – lack a strong reputation. If a person sticks with “reputable sources,” the thinking goes, they’ll be safe from fake news.

The problem with relying on reputation is twofold. First of all, the reputability of a news source isn’t universal; within different communities, different sources have different reputations. Consider the following infographic produced by an unknown author shortly after Election Day 2016, aiming to helpfully lay out a variety of news sources according to how trustworthy they are:

Almost immediately after this image began to circulate, the popular website Infowars countered with a guide of its own:

Each of these two guides (available at Infowars 2016) attempts to cement certain information sources as more reputable than others, but the recommendations of the two guides are almost entirely opposite. Reputation is a quality that varies based on the opinion prevalent in different communities, and claims of quality based on reputation will therefore be evaluated according to prevalent opinion. Within conservative communities, the call to “Trust the New York Times” is laughable. Within liberal communities, a reference to Infowars as a reputable source will earn a snort. Reliance on reputation does not unite people across political differences; it only further divides them.

A second approach to reputation leads to a second problem. Some of the older and larger-budget news organizations refer to their staff of highly educated and credentialed journalists as a reason to trust the content of their reporting. However, a number of educated, credentialed journalists at the biggest news organizations – such as Ruth Shalit, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair (Reider 2003) – have been caught in the act of reporting absolutely false information, with editors at least initially failing to catch the errors. If no reporter or editor is infallible, why should readers simply be asked to trust what any reporter writes?

The answer is that they shouldn’t. The reputability of a source is a poor way to distinguish between fake news and real news. But if reputability won’t work, what will?

Call me parochial, but I’d like to suggest that journalists consider an academic model. When I publish a piece of research, I am expected to support every factual claim either with a citation that directs readers to the source of information, or to provide direct documentation of the fact myself.  In this column, I’ve used parenthetical references and a reference list (below) to direct you to the sources of every claim I’ve made. Most of the references are to other publications, but one cites original data, and you can follow a link to download and review the data for yourself. You don’t have to bother worrying about my reputation – you can check out my claims for yourself and see whether they’re true.

If my claims were entirely based on unverifiable sources that I couldn’t or wouldn’t cite, that would be important for you to know, too.

In an age of print papers, parenthetical citations and data would have been too expensive to fit on newsprint. But in the Internet Age, the truth is that reporting is read and spread mostly as web pages, on which the addition of references costs nothing but time. The shifting of standards of journalism to a more academic model would make it possible for anyone to be a fact-checker, for anyone to determine whether news is fake or real. If access to knowledge is essential for a healthy democracy, making this shift would represent not just a professional choice but a civic service as well.

James Cook has been a professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2011. Dr. Cook’s primary areas of interest in research and teaching are political organizations, social networks, and social media, specifically applying social network theory to social media in the Maine State Legislature.

References

Burgoyne, Alexander P. and David Z. Hambrick. 2017. “Flagging Fake News or Bad Sources Won’t Work.” Slate, January 12. Accessed January 31, 2017 at http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/01/educating_people_about_sources_won_t_stop_fake_news.html.

Ferlazzo, Larry. 2017. “Ideas for E.L.L.s: Finding Reliable Sources in a World of ‘Fake News.’” New York Times, January 26. Accessed January 31, 2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/learning/lesson-plans/ideas-for-ells-finding-reliable-sources-in-a-world-of-fake-news.html.

Google Trends. 2016. Search for “Fake News” in News Stories and Web Searches over 12 months. Accessed January 31, 2017 at https://www.google.com/trends/explore?date=today%2012-m&geo=US&q=fake%20news. Data available at http://jamescookuma.com/googletrendsfakenews.

Infowars. 2016. “Alternate Reality: Viral Propaganda Chart Demonizes Independent Media.” December 14. Accessed

The Onion. 2017. “The Onion: America’s Finest News Source.” Accessed January 31, 2017 at http://www.theonion.com.

Reider, Rem. 2003. “The Jayson Blair Affair.” American Journalism Review, June. Accessed January 31, 2017 at http://ajrarchive.org/Article.asp?id=3019.

Rogers, Katie and Jonah E. Bromwich. 2016. “The Hoaxes, Fake News and Misinformation We Saw on Election Day.” New York Times, November 8. Accessed January 31, 2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/us/politics/debunk-fake-news-election-day.html.

Swift, Jonathan. 1729. A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick. Dublin: S. Harding.

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