Happy New Year!

“Fake News” may be the most important catchphrase of the past year, but there’s one aspect of the argument I think gets glossed over. As the new political season ramps up, it may help to clarify the difference between news reporting and commentary.

Just because someone’s byline appears in a newspaper or their talking head appears on a TV news broadcast doesn’t mean that they’re actually reporting the news. Most news organizations have both reporters and commentators. In general, reporters seek out and deliver facts, and commentators interpret those facts.

To muddy the water even more, there are branded news sites — Forbes being one popular example — where anyone with a valid email address — including you — can create an account and post an article as a “contributor”. There’s no vetting of credentials or subject matter expertise, so at first glance it appears that the news organization whose name is on the masthead created the content. You’ve probably had friends send you links with subject lines like “Forbes says…” or “This comes from (well-known site) so it’s not ‘fake news’.” Look carefully at the fine print before you accept the premise.

In real news stories the events described can be independently corroborated, and the facts are presented without bias. “Fake news” means two things:
1) A wholly made-up story. There are no credible sources to support the story, and events described are fabricated.
2) A story where facts are cherry-picked and selectively enhanced or de-emphasized to lead the reader to a pre-determined conclusion.

Neither of the above qualifies as “commentary”, although commentators often interpret facts based on their personal experience. When a commentator’s fact-based perspective casts our current president or his supporters in a negative light, they’re quick to apply the term “fake news”, but commentary isn’t news — it’s opinion. Commentary comes from all points on the ideological spectrum, and it’s worth emphasizing again that an individual’s displeasure with a commentator’s conclusions does not make a story “fake.”

Before you repost or repeat a story, please make the effort to verify both its factual accuracy and its author’s background and expertise. Misinformation and disinformation hurt everyone.