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Updated: Aug 24, 2020

April 18, 2020

As soon as we went into lockdown, Stephanie and I started watching the news all day every day.

We’re not quite news junkies, but at times (approaching a Presidential election, when there’s a natural disaster, or when something is happening that applies to our lives directly), we've been known to watch news programs for hours, back-to-back.

Now when I say “news,” what I really mean is a mix of news, commentary and analysis, often delivered by MSNBC, though not always. I do like to mix things up. And I find it reassuring when I migrate over to CNN, ABC or any other mainstream channel, to confirm that the news itself is identical to what my favorite channel broadcasts. I trust and value factual, verifiable news, and I enjoy robust opinion, as long as each knows where one leaves off and another begins.

Nowadays in the media, that isn’t always the case. And because some channels and programs deliberately mislead the public — hiding behind a “news” designation when what they really do is dish out opinion — society has become more distrustful of news overall.

That makes me mad. And now that coronavirus is here, it also freaks me out. Americans have to start agreeing on what is true and what isn’t. I don’t care if you call yourself blue or red, you are protecting or endangering my life, just as I’m protecting or endangering yours. So we should start coming to some agreements.

How about this for the first one: "news" that isn’t truthful or accurate isn’t news. If you come across “news reports” online or on TV that don’t sound right, verify! That’s what journalists learn to do, so they don’t send biased, dishonest or inaccurate information out into the world disguised as “news.” nmjbv Fake News (VIDEO from DW Media overseas - in English)

As a former journalist, that term everyone loves to spout nowadays, “fake news,” actually hurts me. For one thing, the phrase itself is a contradiction. It’s — well, fake. News by definition can’t be fake. If it’s not real, it isn’t news. It’s either fiction or opinion.

Think about it. If you said to someone, “I have big news: John Hughes movies suck,” you’d be lying because there is no news (fact) in that statement. It’s just an opinion.

Whereas if you said, “I have big news: John Hughes wrote under the pseudonym ‘Lucretia Borgia’” that would be news. In fact, that would be news a fact-checker would nail you on, because John Hughes actually used the pseudonym “Edmond Dantes.”

If you really believed it was Lucretia Borgia, and your story ran, you’d have to suffer the shame of its title appearing on your newspaper’s Corrections page, or a broadcaster explaining the situation and ending with “[Network name] apologizes for the error.”

Now you’ve dragged your whole organization down with you. No reporter wants that. And anyway reporters are sticklers for the truth. I know because I was a reporter myself. I made two rather glaring fact errors in the 20+ years I was a features writer and I still remember both of them perfectly.

Right now we, as a society, have a big problem with how much we should or shouldn’t trust our media. Our own President is responsible for popularizing the term “fake news.” (By the way Trump didn’t actually coin it. BuzzFeed’s News Media Editor, Craig Silverman, did, while running a research project at Columbia University in 2014. See? That itself is news.) Information imparted to the public that is provable, factual, accurate and true, is called hard news. Fact-based reporting that is written in a less formalized way (no “inverted pyramid”) is called features.

Most non-journalists aren't aware of that distinction, and probably few care, but it’s important right now for the most pragmatic of reasons. When we want to know something, we turn to the news. Right? If you hear screaming sirens outside, or see a column of black smoke, don’t you turn on the TV, check your phone, or stick your head out the window and call down, “Hey, what’s going on?”

I suppose that’s how the news industry got started. Humans need to know what’s going on. In the midst of a pandemic, humans really need to know what’s going on.

Way back on March 11, MediaMatters For America ran an article titled “Fox News is Downplaying the Risk of Coronavirus.” Since then this media watchdog non-profit has been running report after report about the inaccuracies in the Fox Network’s reporting of the crisis.

For instance, after Trump started urging the public to consider taking an anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, to prevent COVI-19 (“What have you got to lose?” he famously said on air), after hearing about it on Fox. Fox hosts then doubled down on the topic, to the point that, as the Media Matters website reports, “Fox’s promotion of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, and our previous study showed Fox promoting it nearly 300 times in a two-week period.”

Two days ago, a MediaMatters story documented the specific instances when Fox deliberately minimized the dangers of the virus, or suppressed medical or scientific facts about it, in order to support right wing messaging. Here are some of those instances:

• The virus is a “hoax” perpetrated by liberals to defeat Trump in the 2020 election

• The virus is no more deadly than the flu

• The virus is “yet another attempt to impeach the President”

• People should not listen to “panic pushers” since the virus “could just disappear”

• The virus is a “Chinese stunt” designed to hurt Trump

• Warnings by the CDC can’t be trusted “because of how they’ve acted on gun control”

For at least three weeks, and maybe as many as six weeks, a lot of news viewers did not know what to believe about the virus. According to a KFF Health Reform poll published on April 2, less than half of all Americans trusted the media (left or right wing -- or center for the matter) to supply accurate information about the virus. The CDC, state and local governments, Dr. Fauci, the World Health Organization, and even President Trump himself, all ranked higher in trustworthiness than the media. (Trump, rather responsible for this dismal state of affairs with his love of the "fake news" epithet, ranked only barely higher.)

This is really unfortunate. By and large, Americans have usually trusted the media to provide factual information. In the 1970s (an era when public trust in the media hovered around 70%), CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was voted “most trusted man in America”! Sadly, a recent Gallup poll (September 2019) found that only 41% of Americans trusted the media.

This isn’t because all media has become less trustworthy. It’s because some media outlets such as Fox, which has the word “News” in its name, promote political or other biases that taint their reporting. That has started to make people across the nation doubt the veracity of media generally, or at least whatever media they themselves don’t favor.

Here’s a handy, non-partisan guide: if it isn’t true, it can’t be news. If you can’t prove it, it

isn’t true.

A lot of “news” programs out there use news as the basis for opinion programming. Fox is the most glaring example of this. Every day, reputable news outlets like CNN, the BBC, and non-cable networks like CBS, ABC and NBC broadcast factual, verifiable news. And every day, networks like Fox take that reporting and turn it into the basis for their opinion programming.

MSNBC, considered by many the liberal counterpoint to Fox, does not call itself a news organization and does not use the word “news” in its name. Its website states, “MSNBC is an American cable television channel that provides NBC News coverage as well as its own reporting and political commentary on current events.”

Now consider Fox, whose bias is built directly into its name: “Fox News is an American conservative cable television news channel.” The fact that it allies itself with conservative political beliefs means it cannot, by definition, be an actual news channel! Though it can be, and is, a fake news channel ... that is, if you think there’s such a thing as fake news!

So the question now becomes: why should anyone take biased reporting as fact? As “NEWS”? Especially now, when believing one fact over another could mean the difference between staying healthy or getting sick — between getting others sick or keeping your germs to yourself — and even between life and death.

While we debate what’s true and what isn’t, the virus keeps reminding us that it's here and it, at least, is definitely real. The frightful numbers climb and climb. Today, April 18, the worldwide death toll from COVBID-19 is approaching two and a half million.

Maybe it’s time we start believing some of the “fake news” that comes out of our mainstream news networks. That’s the news that keeps turning out to be true.

If in doubt, consult these “Fake News” Watchdogs:

FullFact and Snopes (for social media)


The Cure for Fake News: How to Read About the Corona Virus

The Guardian

Truth in Media (podcasts)

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