Seems like everybody is using the word “fake news” recently without, apparently, having the slightest idea what it means. Heck, there’s even people who’ve (incorrectly) called blogs “fake news” where said blogs, such as Daily Kos, contained nothing of the sort. So, here we go, let’s do a bit of ferreting out of definitions:
1) News: This is reporting that follows the 5 W’s and one H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. For example, a car chase. Who: Some thug named Goon McStupid, and the combined police departments of Santa Clara, Mountain View, and the CHP. What: A car chase. When: Last night at 3am. Where: Down US101. Why: Felon in possession of a firearm and heroin tried to evade police. How: Police tossed out stop strips, shredded his tires, and captured him as he attempted to run from his car.
Thing about news is that it’s verifiable. People heard it on the scanners. You can call the police press relations office and get a thumbnail summary of what happened. There will be an arrest record that can be examined. A court record when Goon McStupid gets charged and has a bail hearing. And so forth.
2) Fake news: This follows the 5 W’s and one H, but is completely made up. If you call the police press relations office they’ll say they never heard of anybody named Goon McStupid. There will be no arrest record. There will be no court record. The entire story is completely made up. A “tell” of fake news is that information that would allow verifying it is completely left out. Another “tell” of fake news is that if you do attempt to verify it and find that it’s unverifiable, it’s always a conspiracy. So, let’s talk about the horrible Incident in Sweden Last Friday. So, you attempt to verify the existence of this incident, and find that there’s no reporting of any such incident in the Swedish press last Friday. You call the national police department of Sweden, and they tell you that there was no terrorist attack in Sweden last Friday. The perpetrator of the Fake News story then claims that there is a conspiracy to hide the Incident in Sweden. The moment you see the “conspiracy” word, the chances that it is Fake News rises to almost 100%.
3) Analysis: This combines news stories and statistics from reliable sources to examine what a news story actually means. News reporting of Donald Trump’s latest Nuremberg Rally would include details of what he stated in his speech, such as his mentioning of a horrible Incident in Sweden Last Friday. Analysis then examines news stories from Sweden to see if anything happened there last Friday, calls the Swedish police and finds that they know of nothing remarkable happening in Sweden last Friday other than the Eurovision contest, and concludes that nothing happened there last Friday. Analysis then notes that Trump’s invocation of a horrible Incident in Sweden was inaccurate or false. If they’re being really bold, they will say “Trump lied.” Analysis is not fake news, regardless of whether you agree with its conclusions or not. You can still follow the links to the underlying cited facts and do your own analysis and draw your own conclusions.
4) Commentary: This goes beyond simple analysis and arrives at overarching conclusions or opinions, usually from references to or analysis of multiple news stories. For example, a blog is usually commentary. A blog may link to multiple news stories and data sources, provide analysis of those news stories, then say that Donald Trump’s White House is in chaos. Again, this is not fake news. This is commentary or opinion about the news.
5) Editorial or opinion piece: This goes beyond commentary and attempts to make you think or feel a certain way or do something that the writer thinks you should do. Facts may or may not be used, and where used, will generally be facts that support the conclusion that the author wants you to reach, or if it is a less scrupulous opinion writer, may be made up entirely from whole cloth. The thing is, opinion doesn’t pretend to be news, because it isn’t. It’s an argument that you should think or feel a certain way or do something that the writer thinks you should do. For example, an opinion piece may argue “Illegal immigrants are criminals and should be deported.” This is not “fake news”, even though there are no facts to support this opinion (when you look at the underlying facts, unauthorized aliens are actually less likely to commit violent felonies than citizens are). This is a typical “call to action”, which tells you immediately that it is an opinion piece, not news.
6) Satire: The best satire exaggerates real life facts and creates deliberately implausible “facts” in order to comment upon reality. For example, The Onion’s famous “Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Now Over” published on January 21, 2001 pointed out that the Clinton years were peaceful and prosperous, and the Bush years likely would not be given the general Republican platform. It did this by putting words into President Bush’s mouth. However, this was not “fake news” because it was clear both from context and from multiple disclaimers that The Onion was not, in fact, positing that President Bush actually said these things. The words were put into his mouth in the service of commentary upon what was likely to happen during the Bush Administration, not as an attempt to convince people that President Bush actually said those things. That’s the difference between satire and fake news.
So I’ve seen analysis, commentary, opinion pieces, and satire repeatedly called “fake news” over the past couple of months. That’s inaccurate, incorrect, misleading, and needs to stop. Fake news is “news” that purports to be real news but is actually made up from whole cloth. It’s not analysis. It’s not commentary. It’s not opinion. It’s not satire. It’s just fake.
– Badtux the Terminology Penguin