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By Philip Revzin

CHICAGO, 23 NOVEMBER 2016 — Real news is non-fiction. It is true.

Fake news is fiction. It’s not true.

If you get confused at all during the rest of this piece, just refer back to the first two paragraphs. That’s all you need to know.

We are suddenly awash with fake news, everything from a Washington, DC pizza joint falsely being branded the home of a child-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, resulting in death threats against the owner and his family; to a completely made up story about tourist buses being used to haul pro-Clinton voters from polling place to polling place. (They were, in fact, tour buses.)

As ridiculous as the stories are on their face, they both made it from somebody’s basement to mainstream, or at least mainstream-ish "news" sites on the Internet. Whether anyone actually believed them or based any sort of decision on them is beside the point. They are not news. (See paragraph two.)

But they are serious enough threats to the real news. Bombarded by this stuff, too many people are giving up, saying everybody lies, asking how they can tell real from fake, and deciding it’s all a bunch of lies. In our polarized political atmosphere, hardening opinions on right and left are too-often convincing both sides it isn’t worth the effort to find out what’s really happening. It’s easier, and easier than ever, to just consume news that confirms your opinions. What is truth after all? (See paragraph one.)

It is worth the effort. There are trusted facts that can now be found more easily than ever before, by using the same tools that spread fake news. Sure, if you Google something you can get a lot of noise, but within that noise are signals from reliable government statistical agencies, or straight-arrow news sources like the Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg, Dow Jones and others, or Snopes or Politifact, or statements and quotes from named, credentialed sources.

Credentialed? That means somebody who has track record or is in a position to know what she’s talking about, and hopefully both. Experts are sometimes wrong (see virtually every political pundit this cycle) but if you know who they are and know who they work for and know how much and what kind of experience they have, you can at least make a considered evaluation whether to trust them or not. Real news features named quotes from credentialed sources, or if there are anonymous quotes, a convincing reason why. There’s also a modicum of common sense required. Hillary Clinton and John Podesta running a child-trafficking ring from a DC pizza joint? Seriously? 

Worryingly, the fake news bombardment is happening at a terrible time for the news business. The aforementioned Google (and Facebook and Twitter) have drained the lion’s share of the advertising revenue away from newspapers and magazines. International and investigative reporting staffs have been decimated, and more cuts are being made at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and elsewhere.

The recent election campaign proved, often by its absence, that we need international and investigative reporting more than ever. The Trump presidency is going to require a vigilant press, especially if he tries to undermine it by restricting access. Twitter wars can be ignored; withholding of vital information can’t.

Readers can help. First, take the time and effort to recognize fake news and shun it. Second, support real news by subscribing to those newspapers or magazines or organizations that have won your trust. Third, if you know college-age kids, suggest they consider a career in journalism, be it old, new or not-yet-invented media. 

We do in some sense get the media we deserve. Be outraged when you see garbage masquerading as news. Switch the channel or read something else. If somebody repeats nonsense to you, politely beg to differ, citing sources where the story can be debunked. Don’t accept false equivalence. If a story seems false to you because you know something about the subject, it probably is.

It’s not too late.

We deserve real, not fake, news. 


Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. He last wrote on the Chicago Cubs World Series Win for Culturekiosque.

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