The term “fake news” is generally understood to be bogus clickbait planted online for financial or political gain. Or so we thought.
The Trump administration earlier this year declared that any news coverage critical of the president would be labeled “fake news.” That’s without regard to the factual accuracy of an offending story. Since then use of the term has metastasized and applied to anything that doesn’t match someone’s expectations of what the story should be.
It’s even been applied to the weather forecast. The National Weather Service (NWS) came under criticism for its forecasts ahead of an East Coast blizzard in mid-March. It was a substantial storm with heavy wet snow, high winds, coastal flooding and power outages.
Forecasters repeatedly stated that they were uncertain where the divide between rain, ice and snow would be. But because of the chance of icing or very heavy snowfall in urban areas the NWS took a cautious approach and stuck with the higher amounts. Accumulations turned out to be much lower than expected in the Boston, New York and Washington metro areas where some people later claimed the forecasts were hyped or manipulated as “fake news.”
A week after the storm the weather service office in Boston took the extraordinary step of releasing a statement defending its professionalism and integrity and denying it manipulated the forecast.
Follow The Facts
News users can take steps to gain more control of determining what’s real, what’s made up and what’s merely a difference in opinion. We often encourage news users to “be your own editor” by crosschecking stories in different sources, investigating questions they have about news stories and challenging their own assumptions. All of those things are included in an expression reporters use, namely, “follow the facts.”
You can do that by seeking varied and reliable news sources. Sometimes the facts may make you feel uncomfortable, anxious or in an outright state of denial. Some of them may even feel damaging or challenging to your political choices and beliefs. But you can choose to follow those facts to wherever they lead — good, bad or otherwise.
Active vs. Reactive
Making that choice comes more from a mindset than a set of steps. It involves an attitude of actively seeking out news vs. passively receiving information and reacting.
A passive consumer thinks of it as “the media said this,” or, “this official said that,” and then merely deciding whether the information is true or false based on how it affects them. An active consumer’s evaluation would be something along the lines of, “I read this story and checked it against reliable competing sources. The main facts are consistent but there are different takes on aspects of the story. I still have questions and have to look for more or updated info.”
Red Wine, Bacon,…
An example of an active approach is when we hear reports of what foods are supposed to be either good or bad for us. Some may hear it passively as instruction – eat this/don’t eat that – then decide if they want to believe it or not. An active news user tries instead to think of it not as true or false but as new information they need to investigate further, maybe ask their doctor about, then figure out if or how to use it.
Another example is the continuing investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. You may remember our advice from earlier podcasts (Episode 7 – The Russia-Trump Story – Wait For It! and Episode 13- The Trump Dossier). We often say “wait for it” because the story is going to take time to develop and reach some resolution. Even after a lot of coverage so far it’s way too soon to draw any conclusions one way or the other.
The NWS widely released information showing the uncertainty in the blizzard forecast. But if we only saw the eye-catching snowfall estimates on TV we would have been surprised at the outcome. The next step would be to ask, “wait a minute, what happened?” That would lead us to information we may have missed that would explain the discrepancy.
An active approach takes a little more effort but it puts us as news users in control. We get to decide whether to follow the facts or be “faked” away from them.