We've heard the term "fake news" frequently over the past few months, so much that I fear the term itself is losing meaning.
Fake news, as I see, is something that has no basis in reality. It's made up. It's fiction. And it's put into the public via social media with the intention that it will be shared and influence opinion.
It's dangerous, and it needs to be rooted out and identified as such.
But many observers have been using the term "fake news" loosely to describe reporting they think is irresponsible, possibly because they believe it's information that's not newsworthy but only aimed at causing damage. This criticism can be valid, but such reporting is not the same as "fake news" as long as the journalism is based on underlying facts that cannot be disputed.
When that happens, the public can debate the merits of the story, and decide if it's important and relevant as they think about the leaders they elect, the choices they make as consumers, the causes they rally behind and so on.
Unfortunately, some journalists are allowing these lines between "fake news" and newsworthiness to get blurred.
A case in point was this week's story about an anonymously prepared report that's been circulating within the intelligence community, political officials and some journalists that has a series of allegations against President-elect Donald Trump and his associates.
No one has verified the allegations, but the news that they're being circulated in intelligence reports came out this week. And then the actual dossier of unsubstantiated allegations was published in full by BuzzFeed, despite any verification and in some cases strong evidence refuting them.
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — The spread of a report about supposed damaging information about Pre…
Here's what BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith wrote defending the decision to publish:
As you have probably seen, this evening we published a secret dossier making explosive and unverified allegations about Donald Trump and Russia. I wanted to briefly explain to you how we made the decision to publish it.
We published the dossier, which Ken Bensinger obtained through his characteristically ferocious reporting, so that, as we wrote, "Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government."
Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing. In this case, the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media. It seems to lie behind a set of vague allegations from the Senate Majority Leader to the director of the FBI and a report that intelligence agencies have delivered to the president and president-elect.
As we noted in our story, there is serious reason to doubt the allegations. We have been chasing specific claims in this document for weeks, and will continue to.
Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice. But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.
I have one big problem with this rationalization: It fails to address the duty that legitimate news organizations have to independently verify facts and to provide meaningful context to the information that is presented. Justifying publication by saying it allows the public "to make up their own minds" ignores the obvious fact that the public doesn't have information to be able to make any conclusions. It's sort of like allowing one side to present an opening argument in a trial and then telling the jury that there will be no testimony or evidence presented.
Not surprisingly, Trump and many of his supporters blasted this news story and labeled it "fake." It actually wasn't. This dossier is real, but the contents very well could be complete nonsense. We just don't know yet. But because it "erred on the side of publishing," BuzzFeed has seriously jeopardized its credibility.
For journalism organizations, the battle to fight against "fake news" is vital because the public needs accurate and thorough journalism to survive. If our industry allows itself to be lumped into the "fake news" conversation through shoddy decision-making, we're heading down a truly frightening path.