“Fake news” has become a hot topic as the internet and social media have made it easier and faster to share news stories. The term itself describes false information that’s spread deliberately to deceive readers. It might be done for the purpose of propaganda, to persuade people to believe or act in a certain way, or for the purpose of profit, to make money by tempting people to visit a webpage. Fake news is different from simple online rumors because it tries to look like a reliable source—a fake news website might have a web address similar to a legitimate newspaper, for example.
When it comes to the news these days, it can be hard to know just who to trust. That’s where Rod Hicks, the “Journalist On Call” for The Society of Professional Journalists, comes in. He’s made it his mission to help journalists regain the public’s trust in an era of fake news. In the Sophia Story below, you’ll discover how Rod is working to facilitate understanding between journalists and their audiences by learning how reporters source information for their stories.
Fake news is a form of misinformation, which has been around for centuries. As we begin our study of history in this challenge, let’s start by taking a brief look at some points in the American past when misinformation played a key role.
We’ve all seen examples of sensational headlines, created to draw readers’ attention and encourage them to purchase a newspaper or click on a link for the full story. Today, we might refer to online sensationalism as “clickbait”—news and headlines that are designed to emphasize drama rather than report facts. In the early days of the United States, using sensationalism to sell newspapers and influence politics wasn’t called clickbait, but it was certainly a common practice.
During the 1790s, many Americans in the newly formed United States closely followed the unfolding events of the French Revolution by reading accounts of them in newspapers. As newspapers reported sensationalized stories of the violence in France, Americans increasingly came to fear an overthrow of the newly formed U.S. government. One result of this fear was the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These four laws were intended to limit both immigration and anti-American writing or speech. They also sought to keep people with radical political ideas out of the country (Mansky, 2018).
There have been other moments of journalistic embellishment—or even flat-out fabrication—to increase sales or shape national events. In the late 1800s, this became known as “yellow journalism.”
One of the earliest and best documented explosions of “yellow journalism” took place in the late 1800s, when newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer dramatized and sensationalized stories that played on the emotions of the American people. The most famous instance occurred when an American Navy ship—the USS Maine—suffered an explosion and sank in Havana Harbor in 1898. The cause of the explosion was widely debated, and even within the Navy, there was no definite answer. The newspapers, however, framed it as potential sabotage, convincing many people that the explosion had been a deliberate attack on the U.S. military. These articles and the slogan “Remember the Maine!” helped create widespread support for entering the Spanish-American War of 1898 (Mott, 2013).
After World War II, the Cold War began and anxiety over communism ran high in American society. Starting in the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin led the charge to expose and prosecute suspected communist spies and their sympathizers in the United States. McCarthy’s accusations were largely based on false or unsubstantiated evidence, but the investigations made front-page news across the country. Propaganda appeared in popular culture outlets like magazines and films, stoking fears that communists lurked within the highest levels of the U.S. government and entertainment industry. Innocent people were targeted, and in some cases their careers and personal lives suffered irreparable harm.
The strategies you’ll learn in this course for reading historical sources closely are the same strategies that can help you detect misinformation and become a careful reader of the news. Historical sources often include the same kinds of things you’ll find in today’s newspapers or news websites: first-person accounts, editorials, political cartoons, photographs, even statistics. And whether it came out last century or last week, each source was produced or created by someone: an individual chose what to include and not include, how to set a tone and style, and whether to frame the content from a certain perspective or include personal opinion or analysis.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t trust any news sources—many do offer reliable information, even in our age of clickbait headlines and fake news. But the critical thinking process you’ll be learning in the coming challenges will give you the tools to fact-check what you read or hear.
When you approach information like a historian, you think about the context of what you’re reading. You consider who wrote it, where, and why. You also look for additional sources that might confirm what you read or offer alternative perspectives. These tactics will help you get a more complete picture of what’s happening in our world.
Source: Strategic Education, Inc. 2020. Learn from the Past, Prepare for the Future.
Mansky, Jackie. (2018, May 7). The Age Old Problem of "Fake News". Smithsonian Magazine. www.smithsonianmag.com/history/age-old-problem-fake-news-180968945
Mott, Katherine. (2013, February 13). Yellow Journalism - Past and Present. American History USA. www.americanhistoryusa.com/yellow-journalism-present-and-past