Journalism vs. Social Media: How Fake News Happens
May 22, 2020
Let me start this out with a little history. I studied writing in college. I have degrees in both creative and technical writing. As part of those studies, I was required to take every journalism class that was offered. I remember spending one semester in a journalism intensive course with a (four times over!) Rhodes Scholar. That man pushed us hard. There were only 3 or 4 of us in the class so we all got individual attention and he gave no leeway anywhere. He pummeled things into our heads that ranged from how to write a headline to journalistic integrity and investigation. Over the years I’ve been very thankful for that semeseter. His teaching has remained the ruler by which I measure news stories.
And so it begins…
The past 10 years or so have seen a serious decline in the state of journalism. I remember watching Good Morning America a few years ago and one of their lead stories involved some well known person caught in something illegal. They didn’t interview the lawyer or anyone involved in the case. They created an entire segment of the show about the reporter who had broken the story. As the interview went on, it was revealed that the reporter didn’t do the actual investigating. Someone else had handed him the entire file full of evidence and all they did was write the story. The question came out at one point as to whether this reporter had vetted and verified all of the information in the file and I remember vividly that this person shrugged and said, “No, we didn’t have time for that. We needed to break the story before anyone else could. There’s no telling how many other people had that file.” I was speechless. A nationally known news outlet admitted that they’d made a choice not to investigate for themselves. I kept waiting for someone to call this reporter on it, but the entire team praised him for breaking the story first. That same reporter was on every major news channel, show, and network over the next week. Journalism was definitely moving in a different direction.
Social media has pushed us even further down that path. Truth be told, it doesn’t need pushed anymore. It’s a snowball gathering momentum down a hill these days.
This morning I saw a post on Facebook. It was from CBS News and it was a sponsored post. The headline said “Notable Covid-19 Deaths Starting to Add Up.” I admit that I have been avoiding the news lately as much as possible, so I was curious.
There are 72 pictures in that gallery. I started sort of half-hearted scrolling through. But then I decided on a whim to look these people up and see how they’d died and when. That was my moment. The first several people had all died from something not even close to Covid. Cancer, heart attacks, etc. My old investigative journalist side rose up and I decided to research each and every one. (Once I get started on something like this, I have a hard time letting it drop without completing it.)
I was absolutely stunned. Out of 72 images in the gallery, seventeen of them died from Covid-19 complications. Seventeen. Out of 72. That means they just put 55 people in there randomly and labeled it Covid. And I’m talking like….absolutely off the rails incredible people tucked into that gallery. Kobe Bryant. Think about that. They put Kobe Bryant in a gallery labeled as deaths from Corona/Covid. They also included Kirk Douglas. The man was 103 and died quietly surrounded by his family. Orson Bean was hit by a car for heaven’s sake. James Lipton had cancer. So did Jim Lehrer. All of these people were in that gallery. There were a lot of people on the list I didn’t recognize, but their deaths were very well covered in the press. One man was working on his home and fell off a roof. He died in surgery. Another woman had stage 4 cancer.
Journalism vs. Social Media
The gallery itself isn’t labeled Covid deaths. It’s simply people we’ve lost in 2020. It looks as if the journalist who pulled the list together meant it to be just that. But the social media post was specifically labeled Covid-19 deaths. It was a sponsored story too. Whomever posted and boosted on Facebook made sure it was front and center that Covid was ravaging our country and stealing all of these notable people. It was designed purely and solely for clickbait. And it was working. The number of shares was climbing faster than I could count. People are sharing it. And likely using it to shore up their own opinion on the whole pandemic. But…it’s not real. It’s social media. Journalism is not social media. And someone hired for social media is not a journalist. They have cross purposes. In this case both people did their jobs. The journalist pulled together an appropriate list of people we’ve lost in 2020. The social media person also did his or her job. They got clicks and shares and engagement. But in the middle, the truth was lost.
I didn’t share this to start up a big political debate. I just wanted to make a point of how easy it is to make something look like what it isn’t. And how quickly that can get shared and spread across social media as fact. Next time you’re ready to share something, maybe ask yourself if you’re interested enough to do the research yourself. I know that not everyone has the time to do that research. But if you aren’t interested enough to put in the time and effort on researching it yourself, maybe it’s not of value enough to share? Just something to think about.