Editor’s Note: It’s time to get over fake news phobia

By Alexandra Yetter, Editor-in-Chief

Alexandra Yetter
(312) 369-8834

Standing in the back of The Promontory, a Hyde Park restaurant, leaning against the bar with my legal pad and recorder out, I listened carefully to prominent Chicago politicos discuss the Super Tuesday results in real-time. Once the panel opened it up to audience questions, the inevitable—and at this point, expected—question came: “How do you distinguish the real fake news from the fake-fake news?”

The answers from the panelists varied slightly, with political consultant Delmarie Cobb tactfully acknowledging her ebb-and-flow relationship with the press throughout her career in politics—Cobb worked as Hillary Clinton’s press secretary in Illinois during Clinton’s 2016 bid for office—and recommending going to the outlet you trust most.

Cobb said she often turns to black media outlets such as The Chicago Defender to support journalists covering news the predominantly-white mainstream media does not.

But it was Ald. Jeanette B. Taylor’s (20th Ward) answer that nauseated me.

“I don’t trust any of them; I go to Facebook,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s more so a conversation and the people that I think I can learn from.”

At this point, I am no stranger to the public’s fear of fake news. At nearly every event I cover and in nearly every class I attend, someone inevitably cries “fake news!” or someone will timidly ask how to dodge fake news, as if it were a villain stalking neighborhood streets looking to steal children.

But what really struck a chord for me was that I had mistakenly assumed the public understood, at least at the surface level, that journalists were more reputable than Facebook posts.

When people refer to “fake news,” they are usually referencing one of two things: a media outlet or story they don’t personally agree with, and thus do not believe; or legitimate faux-journalism, such as personal blogs or editorials, columns and op-eds, none of which adhere to journalistic commandments.

Similarly, calling former 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang a “political commentator” and featuring the CNN emblem underneath his face does not make him a journalist.

Both are due to misinterpretations of journalism.

“Fake news” started as a Trumpist methodology during the president’s 2016 bid for office, something his supporters could chant during rallies as journalists squirmed in the press pit. But four years later, it has rapidly spread to all facets of society, regardless of political ideology. Now, at what I suspect is the height of “fake news-phobia,” even our public officials—as seen with Taylor, surrounded in a room by her constituents—are publicly renouncing their trust in the media.

It’s no secret that public officials often spar with, or are even burned by, aggressive reporters. Public officials have a job to do as do journalists, and sometimes those jobs cause the two to butt heads. However, that is no reason to stand in a room filled with constituents who trust you and have likely voted for you in the past, and tell them you do not trust the fourth estate and have replaced them with a social media entity at the heart of an investigation into foreign meddling in the 2016 election—and likely the 2020 election, according to former Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The press has its issues, just like the three branches of government. For instance, a lack of diversity in the newsroom is an ongoing struggle, but one slowly being addressed, such as with the Chicago Sun-Times, which as part of its recent contract negotiations with the Chicago News Guild, established a website posting the gender and race of its employees.

But public officials and their constituents should call the press out in the rare cases when reporters’ facts are incorrect so they can be remedied, not just default to the cry of “fake news” whenever they are unhappy with the front page.