The Real News on Fake News

Fake – n. A thing that is not genuine; a forgery or sham.

News – n. Newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events.

Fake News – n._______________________________________________________________________

After spending 13 years as a news anchor, producer, and reporter, when recently asked to weigh in on the topic of “fake news,” I started with those definitions—what is “fake” and what is “news”?

You might be surprised by my answer (which I’ll get to in a second), but first, I have several quick disclaimers: I love journalism; I love genuine journalists who go out of their way to keep their own political beliefs, leanings or biases out of their reporting; I respect a slew of Democratic and Republican politicians and operatives whom I consider friends, and I understand all of them have jobs to do.

Now, back to the question – is news fake?

My answer: sometimes it is… but not necessarily because it’s a lie.

I’m not going to waste your time trying to convince you the news you watch on television, read on a newspaper website or links you come across on Twitter are sometimes untruthful. Only 17% of people in a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll claimed to be undecided about whether the news is fake, so odds are good you’ve probably already made up your mind. This is also not a discussion about bias in the news—that’s a topic for another day.

Odds are also good that by coming across this column and reading this far, regardless of your beliefs about news or your political leanings, you’re an educated, informed member of society, and assuming you’re a kind human who treats those on the other side of the aisle with decency and respect, I thank you for your service to your fellow Americans and humanity in general.

With those assumptions and disclaimers out of the way, let’s get to some facts about “the news” these days. As Abraham Lincoln said, “If given the truth, [Americans] can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

Fact #1: Finding “Real Facts” on TV is Harder Than Ever

If you spend your evening tonight watching FOX News, CNN or MSNBC, grab a pen and paper (how quaint, right?) and write down every fact you hear. Don’t jot down peoples’ opinions about those facts, but just write down the actual facts.

Lincoln didn’t say that.

Odds are there won’t be many.

Not breaking news: broadcast media companies are facing an uphill climb to not just grow viewership (and ad revenue) but to hold on to the viewers they still have.

One way media companies make the numbers work is by cutting back on experienced journalists and factual reports, and instead a type of “Let’s get to our panel” opinion show that is far less expensive. Television panels can also provide more explosive, argumentative television. If you’re surfing around the TV and come across two people yelling at each other, it’s the gapers’ block mentality—you stop to see the crash.

Panelists can provide context to an issue. Many are extremely talented and intelligent (including many whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with through the years), but segments aren’t built to provide as many facts as possible in a given amount of time. Also, cable news networks do a terrible job of pointing out panelists’ affiliations, roles, and agenda. It leaves too many viewers assuming that because a person is on television, what they have to say is just as factual or relevant as an actual journalist’s report.

Also, while we’re at it: a “BREAKING NEWS” banner helps to convey a story or issue is a major one and you’d better not tune out or you’ll miss something important. Instead, the banner can be left up hours after that breaking event and a story or headline may be recycled over and over because the networks need to fill time and there’s nothing more eye-catching than the story they’re “covering.”

Advice: know whom you’re watching, listen carefully to what they’re saying and realize how few actual relevant facts you’re spending your own time receiving.

Fact #2: Finding Genuine “News” Online is Getting Harder, not Easier

Let’s imagine a laid-back conversation between just you and I. We’re sitting alone in a room together over a coffee or a beer, having some laughs and chatting about the news of the day. Not knowing you, this sounds pleasant to me.

Now, fill that room with 100 more people whose job it is to steal your attention away from me. Maybe they’re screaming, dancing, or singing. How do I compete for your attention? Do I get louder? Do I have to convince you the other people are crazy and I’m the only sane one?

Welcome to Twitter in 2017.

Finding genuine journalism via Twitter is almost as hard as finding factual reporting on evening cable news broadcasts these days.

“But I come across news stories on Twitter,” you say.

So do I. I use Twitter to see what’s happening out there, but as we build up the number of people we follow, the voice actual news organizations have been drowned out on the medium.

Advice: spend time each day visiting various news websites, reading articles, and mentally highlighting the facts as you go. Don’t trust FOX News or CNN? Your neighbor or family member likely does. It’s a good practice to know the stories being covered everywhere and not just by the journalism outlet you believe does the best job.

Fact #3: You Likely Have More to Do with Distributing Factual Reporting or Biased/Slanted Stories than Traditional News Outlets Do

There are close to a quarter billion Americans old enough to vote in the U.S. right now—more than 240 million people.

The total viewership last Thursday evening of FOX News, MSNBC, CNN and Headline News combined at 9:00 p.m.?

Less than 11 million.

The nightly viewership of traditional evening network news broadcasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS combined right now?

Less than 4.5 million.

For the sake of context, the average viewership for The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (who left the show in 1981) hovered between 27 and 29 million viewers. Fewer people are seeing consistent information.

Also, not breaking news: the readership of newspapers and the audience for traditional over-the-air radio broadcasts has fallen off dramatically. Meanwhile, the number of Americans using Twitter is nearly 70 million. The number of Americans on Facebook? Close to 190 million—58% of the country!

Advice: we ALL need to become much better at:

  • Identifying professional journalists and factual stories;
  • Sharing good journalism online rather than propaganda to support our own politics;
  • Understanding what our neighbors are watching, reading, and believing while doing our best to politely and professionally provide a counterpoint to certain stories,
  • Staying the heck out of Twitter fights.

Mass marketed journalism is less genuine (and therefore more “fake,” according to the definition above) today, not because the majority of journalists are making up sources (I’ve known a lot of professional journalists and have never known one to make up a source, facing the potential legal ramifications, let alone potential job loss, an irate editor or an awkward conversation with an ombudsman), but rather because the media outlets themselves are under more pressure to grab your eyes and ears with shock and awe. The actual journalists I know are not breaking the bank (they are overworked and likely make far less than you), they’re courteous, polite, curious, and intelligent. All they want to do is an honest day’s work for you, their neighbors.

Let’s all do a better job of disseminating the differences between fact-based journalism and flashy headlines. Let’s challenge the cries of “fake news” with actual facts, and give journalists (95% of whom have nothing to do with politics, political reporting, or Washington, DC) a little understanding for what they’re up against right now and maybe even a pat on the back for a job well done.


Jason Fechner is a longtime Midwestern television reporter, political reporter, and anchor. He is currently a PR Consultant. You can find him on Twitter @jasonfechner.

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