Colonia, Yap-- Fake news is a term that has gained popularity since Donald Trump began shouting the phrase at news reporters who attended his rallies during the lead up to the 2016 election. The reason? Major news outlets were reporting negative stories about him that he did not like. It didn’t matter that the journalists did their due diligence and continue to do it every day during this or any other administration to insure that their reporting is accurate and factual.
In the intervening years, “fake news” has become a rallying cry for other people, as well, who don’t like what is written about them or about politicians they support.
I have been on the receiving end of accusations of writing fake news, and the Pacific Island Times has also been charged with it by some members of the Yap State Legislature and citizens of Yap when I have written about illegal or misleading activities that they’ve been involved in. They don’t like the exposure for a couple of reasons. First, airing dirty laundry publicly is considered forbidden. It’s not appropriate to disagree openly with someone in a position of power or importance. And second, those who are believed to be doing something illegally or against the better good of the people they represent quite obviously do not want to be exposed or caught.
To set the record straight, let’s look at what “fake news” is and is not. And how journalists gather information for their stories.
Fake news is often called “yellow journalism” and has historically become associated with newspapers. The term refers to news reporters who pay their sources for information. They also use sensational headlines to draw readers into the articles that are frequently not well researched and rely on those paid informants.
If you’ve ever stood in line in a supermarket and seen a rack of tabloid newspapers with scandalous headlines about celebrities, politicians and other famous people, you’ve seen yellow journalism. You may have even picked up the tabloid to thumb through it while waiting to get to the cash register. This is exactly what the publication wants you to do. They do it by luring you in with exaggerated stories. Some of the people that they’ve written about have taken the publishers to court for defamation and won based on the blatant lies and character assassination.
Other examples of headlines that have been on the front of these publications are: “Half-Human Half-Fish Found in Florida!”; “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar!”; and, “Duck Hunters Shoot Angel!” Many involve aliens. They all have an exclamation point at the end.
In centuries past, a town crier walked through the villages and towns, ringing a bell and shouting the latest news since few people could read or write. Today, Buckingham Palace is one of several British institutions that still has a town crier who announces royal births and other queenly news.
Now, social media has taken over the role of the bell ringer and is the launching pad for information. Like the town crier’s audience who would share the news with friends and family, we click on “share” to send it on its way to our friends and family who share it even farther with another click and a “like.”
But do you know the source of the information that you’re spreading? Who wrote the article and where did it first appear? Is it a reputable news source or is it a hoaxer intent on spreading lies to further his or her own agenda? And what is that agenda? Is it hate? Is it to influence an election or a cause? Who are the quoted experts and sources of the information? Is it the personal opinion of one person with a keyboard and computer sitting in his darkened bedroom, or is it from a respected member of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal’s editorial board?
Neither the Pacific Island Times nor I pay our sources. I may write, and PIT may publish, articles containing angles and quotes that you do not agree with or do not like, but the editor and her writers, of which I am only one, research the information before it hits the web or the newsstand. If I include something that is unconfirmed, I state that it is rumor or, in island vernacular, making the rounds of the “coconut wireless.”
I have been told that some people in Yap speculate that I have sources who give me fake news and I don’t know the difference. But I never write anything without checking the source, many of whom I know personally (it is, after all, a very small island) and confirm the information with other people.
Nor do I or the PIT use sensational, defamatory headlines with exclamation points. Here are a few recent headlines of mine: “First baccalaureate graduation makes history in Yap”; “Ulithi shares something cool and green with the world”; “Yap: Japanese donation comes with music from ambassador”; and, “After school program in Yap supports working mothers.”
Salacious? Hardly. Paid sources? Absolutely not.
Out of more than six dozen articles that have been published over my byline in the PIT and other regional and world-wide media during the past two years, fewer than 10% have addressed controversial news. Those headlines include: “Suffocating bureaucracy stifling Yap tourism”; “Yap is having serious second thoughts about Chinese tourism”; and “No smiles, no welcome for visiting dentist in Yap.” I was approached by state government officials and eyewitnesses and asked to write many of those articles. They fact checked them and gave me their approval before I submitted them for publication. Fact checking is common practice among reputable news organizations and PIT is no exception.
By the same token, if something is found to be incorrect after it is published, a public apology is published and the correction made immediately.
So before you join the crowd shouting "fake news!" do your own homework and check the facts about the news outlet and the writer. When you see something on Facebook, do you immediately share it as fact, or do you access the website where it was published to determine if it’s a trustworthy outlet? Do you Google the name of the writer to see what else she has written and where her writing has appeared? It’s easy to be fooled these days when anyone and their grandmother can create a website or a Facebook page or tweet.
It is for you, and for respected, honest journalists, to ask “why” when leaders and influentials in our world try to suppress information and opinions. We journalists have a creed that we ascribe to and take very seriously. Two of the vows in the creed are:
“I believe that the public journal is a public trust, that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.”
“I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.”
Your responsibility is to be an informed consumer and distributor of information. As author Anthony T. Hincks once said, “You can only blame fake news so many times before the truth starts to emerge from the newsprint.”
Joyce McClure is the Pacific Island Times’ correspondent in Yap. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org