On June 22, Edgar Madison Welch was sentenced to four years in prison under charges that included assault with a deadly weapon. Last December, the North Carolina man walked into a Washington DC pizza parlor with an AR-15 rifle and fired a number of rounds into the ceiling. According to Welch, he was investigating a baseless conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” that had gained traction online. It claimed the Democratic Party was running an illegal child sex ring out of the basement of the building. NPR never covered the conspiracy theory, but it did cover the shooting incident. Welch’s story is just one example of how the world of fake news crossed over into real news reporting. But what is fake news?
“It’s not what we do.”
That’s how Mark Memmott, NPR’s Supervising Senior Editor for Standards & Practices describes fake news. The topic was front and center at PRNDI’s opening session, “Real News in a Fake News Era.” The session was billed as an attempt to provide a blueprint for public radio newsrooms on how to defend their reporting during a time when, according to PRNDI’s president Terry Gildea, “journalists are ethically—and physically—under attack.”
Memmott went on to define fake news as a story that not only implements elements that are not true, but uses those elements to make a point or push an agenda. In short, it’s a conspiracy theory. Real news, Memmott contends, does none of that. Nancy Ancrum, the Editorial Page Editor for the Miami Herald, added that dealing with fake news is nothing new. The role of journalists, she says, is “to pinpoint and dismiss it.”
But that may be easier said than done, according to the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher. He says fake news has taken on a new definition within the context of the 2016 Presidential Election. That means an individual may use the term “fake news” to describe a real news report they disagree with in an effort to discredit the reporter or the institution they work for. He even went so far as to say that President Trump makes use of this strategy by calling reporting that he doesn’t like “fake.” This can put the reporter in a tricky situation. Zurcher compared it to being trapped in quicksand.
“You want to thrash against it,” he says. “You want to push back against what you see as clearly wrong. And unless you move in a calm, deliberate manner, you’re not going to get out.”
The theme of responding to accusations with a sense of calm was echoed by all the panellists. They provided some advice for dealing with allegations of reporting fake news.
“Toughen up,” said Ancrum. “It’s not personal. There are some things you just have to let roll off your back.”
When it comes to talking with someone who is angry with an outlet’s reporting, Memmott’s recommendation was simply, “do not respond in kind.”
“NPR seeks answers,” he added later. “Not confrontation.”