I think we all know by now that the content found on the Facebook platform is a mix of real and fake news, but we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking in black and white terms. Otherwise, we will start categorizing news we disagree with as fake. Here is how I would categorize the information we see every day online:
Straight News. Accounts of completely verifiable events and statements. Journalists gather facts and evidence from first-hand observation of events and reliable sources. In writing their stories, they strive to present information with adherence to the ethical principles and traditional practices of responsible journalism, which places a premium on fairness, accuracy, and objectivity. Fact-checkers and editors provide further quality control. After publication, reputable media outlets are accountable for any errors that are revealed.
In-Depth Journalism. Articles in which principled writers take a position and make a strong case for that position after thorough and objective research. They follow journalistic and ethical principles, as well as the rules of logic and rhetoric. Their research includes careful examination of all principal documents in the public record (e.g., laws or pending legislation, existing regulations, relevant court decisions, relevant correspondence, speeches and statements), interviews with knowledgeable sources that credibly represent all parties, and thorough examination of opposing viewpoints. They do background reading and interviews to ensure that key facts are surrounded by a relevant “bigger picture.”
Public Relations & Advocacy Communications. Information that often imitates journalistic forms and style but is designed to shape public opinion about an organization or group and the causes, positions, or products it represents. PR professionals study their target audience and craft messaging that will persuade them toward desired beliefs or actions. PR and communications professionals typically strive to portray their subjects in the best possible light without making overtly false claims or omitting key facts. Readers realize the bias when they’re looking at company literature or op eds written by a CEO. But sometimes it’s not apparent what interests are behind the content. Exxon or Dow, for example, may sponsor a documentary about Alaska that has nothing to do with their oil pipelines and disposal of chemical waste. But the subtle message is that they are environmentalists who would not do harm. Moreover, journalists may get story ideas from press releases and use material from a company as background in their stories. Often, due to budgetary reasons, news organizations rely too heavily on media releases or inside sources.
Junk news. Sensational, often misleading headlines followed by shallow, poorly sourced content that echoes the emotions and prejudices of targeted groups without adding anything new to what is already reported elsewhere. Its purpose is to generate ad revenues, often for junk products. The information in junk news is not fake, but its production typically bypasses the quality controls that exist in reputable newsrooms. To produce junk news, the “writers” selectively assemble facts and quotes from reputable news sources, but they often ignore important context, opposing evidence, and background that would weaken the grand narrative that the targeted audience chooses to believe.
Propaganda. Content in which language, structure, and facts have been purposely manipulated to mislead, sway, divert attention, obscure truth, and/or cloud judgment. Typically, its purpose is to serve the interests of those holding or seeking power by promoting (propagating) an alternative to the predominant narrative. Not all propaganda is patently false. More often, propagandists present accurate facts but cite sources and select details that make the preconceived claims seem more logical, well-supported, and emotionally compelling than they are. They may use words, forms, images, and music that underscore the effect they are seeking. In short, propagandists persuade an audience to reach a conclusion based on emotion, psychological manipulation, or faulty reasoning rather than relevant evidence.
Fake news. Fabricated stories with little or no basis in facts that are represented as news. Fake news stories may be used as clickbait to build traffic for ads or for disinformation purposes. Fake news often can be disproven simply by googling claims of fact, using a trusted fact checking publication, and thinking about the reliability of sources. Many people don’t take those steps, however.