Have you ever read a sensationalized new article and wondered how much truth it held?
Are you questioning if you can trust this independent explainer post that you’re reading now?
What is fake news and why is it an ethical issue?
Fake news is a type of yellow journalism which sensationalizes, or fabricates a news story for readership (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). One of the main ethical concerns of fake news is that it has the potential to impact and change the audience’s worldview with fabricated ideology. These fabricated stories also have the potential to inaccurately defame an individual’s reputation or depict a situation. Furthermore, the distrust of the media that fake news builds can ruin the career of journalism and trusted news sources.
What are the motives for people who create fake news?
There are two main reasons as to why people create and publish fake news, financial gain and/or political gain (DiLascio-Martinuk 2017). There is a lot of money to be made by creating fake news as dramatized or shocking news is spread quickly and widely. This is particularly true for online social media based fake news as viral articles or youtube videos gain high advertising click-revenue. Political gain is also an appealing outcome. Fake news has the power to create a false perception of any situation or person. Many people use this as a method to influence the political and religious worldviews of others. DiLascio-Martinuk (2017) notes that “Because of confirmation bias, people tend to believe stories that confirm their existing world views and are easily led into sharing articles that they want to believe are true, without questioning the source of the information or its credibility.” As political news has the ability to spread further, and faster and be supported by the public due to confirmation bias these two outcomes often go hand in hand.
What’s an example of fake news in action?
In an interview with the New York Times Cameron Harris explains his experience in creating Fake News stories, using the tension of America’s 2016 Presidential Election for financial gain. The idea of creating Fake News stories came to Harris after Donald Trump stated ““I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest”… [Harris played off the] ‘rigged’ meme… by crafting the headline: “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse”…[To publish his article in a realistic light Harris] bought the abandoned web address [ChristianTimesNewspaper.com] for $5 at ExpiredDomains.net… [Harris admitted that he earned] about $1,000 an hour in web advertising revenue” (Shane 2018).
Are there any regulations that prohibit fake news?
Unfortunately, there are no laws that currently strictly combat fake news, particularly for anonymous online journalists. However, most countries have a Journalist Code of Ethics which acts as a guideline of the correct and moral way to practice Journalism.
For example, as Cameron Harris is American he would be guided by the American Journalist Code of Ethics created by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), which states that Journalists must “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. [and] Use original sources whenever possible” (SPJ 2014).
Similarly, Australia has their own Journalist Code of Ethics which was formed by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) which states that Journalists should “Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.” (MEAA 1994).
However, as Butler and Rodrick (2012 pg. 863) have stated from Australian Media Law, 4th Edition “One of the main problems with the Code of Ethics is that it does not bind the persons who are most vital to its effectiveness, namely, media proprietors, editors and producers.” Unfortunately, no countries Code of Ethics is bound by law, therefore making the contents of those codes un-enforceable.
Though not all hope is lost. Although the Code of Ethics is unenforceable other laws may have the power to restore justice depending on the content of the fake news. For example, in the case of Cameron Harris, he could be taken to court for the defamation of Hillary Clinton.
What are the practical implications for Journalists?
The issue of fake news has deepened the public’s distrust of the media. This creates difficulty for journalists to form a successful career, particularly for independent journalists who aren’t backed by a trusted news corporation. Furthermore, it may cause journalists to stoop to creating sensationalized news themselves to stay relevant.
Fake news also has the potential to falsely alter audience’s understanding, opinions, and ideologies. This can cause a butterfly effect on reputations, people’s lives and ultimately history. In order to solve this issue, it is important that we as audiences actively check our sources and read widely to gain a realistic understanding of a news story.
Butler D, Rodrick S, 2012, Australian Media Law 4th Edition, 10 May, pg. 863.
DiLascio-Martinuk, 2017, ‘Fake News’, Salem Press Encyclopedia, Research Starters, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 May 2018.
MEAA, 1994, MEEA Journalist Code of Ethics, Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance, viewed 9 May. https://www.meaa.org/meaa-media/code-of-ethics/
Shane S, 2017, From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece, The New York Times, January 18, viewed 5 May 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html
SPJ, 2014, SPJ Code of Ethics, Society of Professional Journalists, viewed 9 May. https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016, Yellow Journalism, Encyclopaedia Britannica, viewed 12 May https://www.britannica.com/topic/yellow-journalism