Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Fake News vs. "Foke" News: A Brief, Personal, Recent History

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Fake News vs. "Foke" News: A Brief, Personal, Recent History

Article excerpt

there is a quip that journalism instructors become accustomed to hearing when we say that we teach a class in news media ethics: "Isn't that an oxymoron?" Meaning, aren't journalists-with their penchant for lurid tales of sex and violence, their disrespect for the privacy of the dramatis personae in such tales, and their eagerness to rush such stories into circulation before they have been verified-utterly devoid of ethics?

The image is a caricature, but its currency bespeaks growing skepticism about the reliability of the mainstream news media.1 That skepticism has information seekers exploring all manner of alternative news sources, from those that more or less adhere to traditional journalistic standards, to those that are openly partisan, to those that either spoof journalistic conventions or use them to perpetrate hoaxes.

This essay outlines the various forms of fake news that have arisen in the journalism world in the past couple of decades and tries to show how those in-house lapses, coincident with the rise of computer-mediated communications, may have contributed to the present overheated information environment in which new, extra-journalistic forms of fake news, some benign and some malignant, compete for our attention.

I will also offer some thoughts on how to distinguish folkloric fake news-perhaps we should call it "foke" news!-which is meant to amuse, from propagandistic fake news, which is meant to deceive.

Journalistic Fake News

I taught my first news media ethics class in 1998. I don't recall using the term "fake news" back then, but the slide carousels I inherited from my retired predecessor included examples of material that could be considered fake news. One set of slides consisted of newspaper copy that had all the trappings of editorial content-headline, byline, captioned photograph(s), multi-column layout, and, in some cases, the writer's mug shot-but which was, on closer inspection, an advertisement.2 Hence, the portmanteau term "advertorial."3 One such ad that appeared in the automotive section of a Pennsylvania newspaper a few years after I moved from the newsroom to the classroom began thus:

The Ford Explorer, which has virtually defined the compact sports utility vehicle segment since its introduction in 1990, gets an all-new platform for 2002, designed to offer performance and convenience in a robust yet comfortable package. ("2002 Ford Explorer" 2001)

The piece continued in this laudatory vein for almost 1,000 words. A cynic might say the Ford Motor Company had obviously greased the writer's palm, and, indeed, one expects even a rave review to pick at least a few nits. But keep in mind that the piece looked like editorial content and, just as importantly, did not look like most ads, and that genuine rave reviews are not unheard of. What is unheard of, or is at least exceedingly rare, is for a rave review to end the way this one did, with an exhortation to "test-drive the 2002 Ford Explorer today," followed by the address of the local Ford dealer. At that point, it finally became clear that the purpose of the piece was not to evaluate, but to promote.

There can be only one reason to design an ad to resemble news: to make it more believable. To be an ad in news clothing is to seemingly have your product touted by an independent, knowledgeable source. If a Ford Explorer ad tells you the Explorer is the best car in its class, you take it with a grain of salt: of course the ad is going to say that. If a piece of writing looks for all the world like it was written by a staff or syndicated automotive columnist, you might just be that much more inclined to buy the Explorer rather than one of the other cars in its class.

Paradoxically, by "hitchhiking" on the credibility of news,4 advertorials began to undermine the credibility of real news. Once you find out that a story you thought was legitimate news is actually an ad, you naturally begin to wonder if other stories are also ads in disguise. …

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