NewsLiteracyPlaybook - Flipbook - Page 11
History of Misinformation
To understand the battle between “fake news” and
journalism in today’s digital world, it helps to know a
bit of the history of both.
Standards of reporting
Today’s high-quality journalism is founded on facts,
but that’s not the way it has always been.
“Journalism” and “news” are not interchangeable
concepts, and the two have a long, intertwined
history. Accurate eyewitness reports of events are
only a small part of the information ecosystem,
which also includes a mix of entertainment, biased or
sensationalized reports, and outright fictions.
“News” goes back to when balladeers sang stories, or
people gathered at watering holes to talk. “News,” too,
was the piece in a Scottish broadside (single-sheet
newspaper) in the mid-1700s about a mermaid seen
near Inverness. It also was The War of the Worlds, the
1938 radio drama about a Martian invasion of the U.S.
state of New Jersey that many listeners believed was
an actual news report.
purpose, as the American Press Institute puts it, is
“to provide citizens with the information they need
to make the best possible decisions about their
lives, their communities, their societies, and their
The origins of journalism, with its core concept
of neutrality, lie in what professors John Maxwell
Hamilton and Heidi Tworek, among others, call an
Anglo-American model that emerged in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries (PDF download). Numerous
factors in the United States and Britain, including
the greater profit that owners found in owning
nonpartisan news outlets, led to a system of practices
and beliefs that credible news organizations aspire to
today: impartial, independent news reporting whose
methods, such as attribution, are clear enough to the
public that people are able to decide how trustworthy
the information is.
(Elsewhere at the time — including in France, for
example, as Jean K. Chalaby notes in his 1998 book,
The Invention of Journalism — journalists continued to
mix news and opinion and “to write in the tradition of
publicists, writing to propagate political doctrines and
defend the interests of a particular political group.”)
Fact-based journalism did not grow — and has not
grown — equally in countries throughout the world.
Hamilton and Tworek also note that such aspirations
did not thrive in countries where “the public had low
literacy and oligarchs controlled the press.”
Nowadays (and perhaps then), the mermaid tale
would be considered wholly made up and the Martian
invasion satire. Needless to say, neither was based in
facts. That’s where “journalism” comes in.
That continues to be the case today: The
Committee to Protect Journalists, an international
nongovernmental organization based in New
York City, tracks the countries where reporters are
threatened, jailed or killed for trying to report the
news. In countries with repressive regimes, citizens
officially learn only what the government wishes
them to hear — and even then, reporters for state-run
operations might live in fear.
Journalism standards and codes of ethics — generally,
the attempt to uncover the facts and report them
fully, fairly, accurately and contextually — are relatively
new, even in countries with a free press. Journalism’s
Even in countries with a model of objective reporting,
much of what outlets publish or broadcast as
“news” is actually entertainment. Or it could be
sensationalized, highly partisan or made-up stories