MOST readers who keep abreast of the news and current affairs will recall the by now famous put-down by US President Donald Trump of the CNN broadcast network as “fake news”. The phrase while not invented by President Trump certainly got a boost by his use of it and one regularly hears the refrain in everyday conversations, jokes and more serious observations about the role of the media and politicians in societies the world over.
I can attest to the fact that when one of my sons thinks what I am saying is nonsense he will reply with the amusing riposte: “fake news!” The phrase is now ubiquitous. Behind the use of the phrase, however, lies a significant educational issue. How do we educate students to be able to decipher and discern the difference between so-called fake news and the real thing?
At first, we may be tempted to focus our understanding of the question by focusing on the difference between the fake and the real, fact or fiction or between lies and the truth. Fake news would thus be news that was not true, fictitious and deceptive. The basic problem before us with our students would be to teach how to discern truth from falsity, fact from fiction and trustworthiness from deception.
However, another way to approach the question would be to ask ourselves what exactly do we mean by the word “news”? What constitutes
news and which kinds of news ought we pay attention to and which ought we be more sceptical about?
To approach this question, let’s refer to Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, published in 1961. Boorstin had been the 12th Librarian of Congress and was an eminent American historian. In his book, Boorstin argued that America was living in “an age of contrivance” in which illusions and fabrications predominated.
Public life, according to Boorstin, is now filled with pseudo-events and media dependent contrivances. The news itself was not immune to this phenomenon. In fact, in his book Bernstein provides a chapter on pseudo-events and the news, and makes the point that our whole concept of what news is has changed over time. From simply reporting what actually happened to fabricating news “events”, the shift in what we think of as news has been profound.
Boorstin writes: “We used to believe there were only so many ‘events’ in the world. If there were not many intriguing or startling occurrences, it was no fault of the reporter. He could not be expected to report what did not exist. Within the last 100 years, however, and especially in the 20th century, all this has changed. We expect the papers to be full of news. If there is no news visible to the naked eye, or to the average citizen, we still expect it to be there for the enterprising newsman. The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one — by the questions he asks of public figures, by the surprising human interest he unfolds from some commonplace event, or by ‘the news behind the news’. If all this fails, then he must give us a ‘think piece’ — an embroidering of well-known facts, or a speculation about startling things to come.”
The demand for constant newness and the growth in expectations of the “news” create a demand for a new kind of news — news which is synthetic, always novel and media-dependent. Such news is more often than not made or constructed by the media. Think, for example, of the difference between reporting a Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament and a news conference. In this example, there is an event that is taking place independent of the media. The media reports the speech but the speech itself and the place it is held are in no way influenced by, set up by, contrived or fabricated by the media. The event is not dependent on the media. The media may choose to misreport or distort what was said but such deceptions can usually be corrected through reference to transcripts or eyewitnesses. Now think of the gotcha moment in a news conference where reporters ask a trick question or bully a politician into an outburst which otherwise simply would not have happened.
The whole environment of the news conference is created for the purpose of being reported and often the aim of the question or verbal intervention is to create a news event, not simply to report it. The so-called news event is in fact often a “pseudo-event” which privileges immediacy, and entertainment at the expense of substance. Where the politician has taken too much time to answer the question or floundered and misspoke becomes newsworthy and we end up making judgments about the competence or knowledge of politicians based on the most trivial basis.
Here the problem may not necessarily be that pseudo-events are necessarily untrue in the sense that they did not actually happen, or were made up. The transcript from such an event will usually be consistent with the event as it appears through the media. We see it clearly and plainly before our eyes. It is not fake in this sense. The question before us, however, is not whether the gotcha moment, the contrived media dependent slip, actually happened in the example I presented above. Instead we ought to ask ourselves: what kind of news is this? As educators, we need not only to teach our students the difference between truth and falsehood, facts and fiction in the news. We also need to teach and develop the critical faculties of students so they can know contrivance when they see it and understand the difference between media dependent pseudo-events and news of events which are not media-dependent and contrived.
Educators teaching media literacy and critical thinking may find Boorstin’s book a particularly useful resource in helping to draw out and understand the necessary distinctions we need to make to be able to discern fact from fiction, news of events from news of pseudo-events and help us to understand the dimensions and scope of “fake news”. Doing this would be a great contribution to media literacy and civic education.
The writer is a lecturer in Education in Australia. Email him at email@example.com