What Exactly Is Fake News?

This photo is "fake news" because it is a fabrication. Could you tell?

We all hear a lot of talk about fake news. But do you recognize it when you see it? Washington veterans and news junkies will likely be pretty confident, but casual consumers may not be. And the truth is that just about anyone can be fooled now and again.

With crucial elections coming up, it has never been more important that all sides of the political spectrum operate from a common set of facts and credible sources of information. Here’s what you need to know to keep it all straight.

What exactly is fake news?

Fake news is fabricated material—made up stories, to put it simply—generated by organizations that are not real news outfits. These people or organizations are not trying to report the news. Rather, they usually have some other purpose, such as a prank or hoax, political advocacy or generating traffic to a website. High-traffic sites and social streams can make money through advertising, even if the content is inaccurate.

What fake news is not

Credible news organizations like the Associated Press, The Washington Post, Politico, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and CNN are not producing fake news. They employ thousands of professional journalists who are generally trying to be truthful and accurate. Credible organizations all have strict ethics policies and fabrication is a fireable offense.

Of course, even the best news organizations don’t always get it right. All news organizations make mistakes—sometimes big ones—and real news organizations will always issue a correction or even a retraction when that happens. In rare cases, some news organizations will publish a story explaining how the mistake took place. The point is this: Mistakes are not fake news. Mistakes are mistakes.

Why all the confusion?

Some politicians have taken to calling stories that they don’t like or that are unfavorable fake news. That has blurred the lines, especially among folks who are not regular news consumers. Social media has also played a role, sometimes presenting credible news stories alongside fake news in a way that makes it tough for the average reader to distinguish between them.

What about news with a point of view?

Some news organizations cater to a specific audience. It is well known that Fox News caters to conservatives and MSNBC caters to liberals. While some criticize this, its a model that has worked in other countries for a very long time. News is delivered through a specific political prism, which often emphasizes some stories and de-emphasizes (or even eliminates) others. It is not fake news because it does not involve fabrication.

More traditional in the United States is to have the news and editorial departments separate, with a bright line between them. For example, The New York Times editorial section is liberal and the Wall Street Journal’s is conservative, but both organizations try to keep those viewpoints out of their news coverage.

Having said that, the lines between fact and opinion have generally become more blurry in the digital age. Online presentation makes it less clear what is a news story and what is an opinion column, even if both are labeled. Many cable news channels feature shows that mix news, commentary and opinion, making it tough to distinguish one from another. The social media jumble can also be hard to sort out.

Which news sources can you trust?

This is a personal decision. But here’s a good rule of thumb: know exactly what you are reading or viewing before you trust information. Is it an opinion column or a news story? Is the organization a well-known source of news with a credible reputation? Does that organization have a point of view? Taking in many different sources and viewpoints—including those counter to your own—is a good way to educate yourself on any issue. Just make sure you understand the sources.

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