All Commentary
Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Is “Fake News” Really Fake?

The more complicated a situation, the more open to interpretation it is.

The term “fake news” has been much in the news since the 2016 election. Unfortunately, it is not usually defined in any clear fashion. The implication is that the media engages in deliberate distortion and misrepresentation of the news. Not just any media, but most of the media, commonly referred to as the “mainstream media,” have been accused of distributing “fake news.”

Recently, I read an extended critique of the media that put everything in quite a different light. It is something I believe every working journalist should read. Sixty short pages that explain that not only is there a distinct bias in the mainstream media, but why this is the case. What is of most importance to note is that this bias is not deliberate. It exists on a subconscious level and influences everything the media does. And it does not matter whether the particular media outlet has a left or a right slant.

The author, Robin Koerner, has a masters degree in the philosophy of science and physics from Cambridge. The information is in the first chapter of his book If You Can Keep It: Why We Nearly Lost It & How We Get It Back, a chapter he calls “Mediography.”

Bias Exists Within All of Us

A paradigm is a framework within which someone observes and comments on the world. The best way to explain the points he makes is to start with an example. Here is a headline from the Drudge Report dated November 2006: “Iran Fires Missile That Can Reach Israel.” The headline is factually accurate. It is not deliberately biased. But, Koerner argues, it is misleading. It could be considered fake news (though Koerner does not use those terms).

Koerner explains that historically there has been a simmering animosity between Persia (Iran) and the Arab world. Persians and Arabs are distinct ethnic groups. In the 1980s, Iran and neighboring Iraq, an Arab state, were at war for almost nine years.

But the headline implies, without explicitly stating it, that Iran’s weapons test was a provocation or threat against Israel. A more nuanced and less inflammatory headline could have read “Iran Fires Missile With Range of 1500 Miles.” That would have been as accurate factually but without the loaded but unspoken implications of the actual headline.

As Koerner explains, both the media and the consumers of information distribute and/or absorb the information within the context of certain paradigms. A paradigm is a framework within which someone observes and comments on the world. It includes one’s prejudices and points of view.

The concept was introduced by philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his revolutionary book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It was popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, among others. Covey elaborates on paradigm shifts — a new way of looking at the same thing. Sometimes it can be something as simple as blinking your eyes. Consider the drawing below:

Is this a picture of a young woman or an old woman? Whatever you see first, blink or shift your focus slightly and, amazingly enough, the picture will change before your eyes. If you see the old woman, look at her right eye as an ear, the right edge of her nose as the edge of her chin and her mouth as a choker or necklace. And vice versa.

Koerner argues that people, both as news producers and news consumers, operate from a certain paradigm, a certain worldview. The Drudge Report headline writer operated from a paradigm that sees the Middle East as primarily a place of conflict between Israel and her neighbors. It is a worldview that is oblivious to or ignorant of the long-standing conflict between Persians and Arabs.

Life Is Complicated and Open to Interpretation

Political disagreements generally center on interpretation. Koerner points out that the more complex a story is, the more open it is to being affected by the prevailing paradigm. The simpler the story, the more accurate our perception of it is. He gives the example of a story about a cat stuck in a tree. No one really cares too much about the story. It has no political overtones and so both the report and our perception of it are more or less accurate. However a political story like the Iranian missile test “exists in a rich context about which the news producer or consumer is likely to have some opinions.”

Most news media and most news consumers, notes Koerner, operate from the same paradigm. Whatever their political views, the vast majority of people in a liberal democracy share certain values. They agree on more than they disagree, though the disagreements receive more attention. But the basic paradigm, the common cultural views and norms, are shared ones.

Political disagreements generally center on interpretation. Most people in Western society share a belief in freedom, in the dignity of individual human beings, in the value of hard work, in the belief that ambition and hard work should be rewarded, in the belief that violence should be avoided and that reason and negotiation are the best way to resolve disputes.

Most people hired as reporters and producers of news content share this worldview, even though they might disagree on specifics of interpretation — which is the essence of political conflict.

Reporting the News Is an Art

This may seem an odd thought, but I believe news reporting, to some degree, is an art. We didn’t just refer to news items as reports when I worked in television news. We called them stories. In fact, we talked about news stories more than we did about news reports. How’s the story coming along? Is the story ready yet? Do you need more elements to finish the story? And so on.

Ayn Rand wrote that “art is the selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” Koerner notes that the more complex a story is, the more difficult it is to recreate every nuance, every facet, that is relevant to the story. Unless something is reported live, the reporter and editor must select the elements that go into the story. As a television news editor, I reviewed the tapes supplied, selected the visual elements I thought best illustrated the story, and selected the sound bites that were most relevant and, importantly, most succinct. A clearly stated short soundbite is more effective than a long, rambling one.

In selecting the elements to include in the story, a television news editor must, out of necessity, leave out a great deal. A news story is the selective re-creation of an event according to the editor and reporter’s value judgments. This greatly affects how a story is presented and also how it is interpreted by the viewer, who applies his own paradigms to understanding the story. Koerner brilliantly explains this with a visual aid. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Consider the picture below.

The reporter and her editor have selected certain facts from a complex story that they believe tells the story, that cover its essentials.

Now, two different viewers may understand those facts differently according to their own paradigms. Rather than a left or right wing perspective, let’s say that one viewer favors a circle paradigm. The other a pentagon paradigm. They see the facts presented by the news story as shown below.

Note that they observe exactly the same “facts” as presented in the story. But their paradigms have them interpret those facts differently.

As Koerner puts it,

“Any argument between those who interpret the situation as a pentagon and those who interpret it as a circle is an argument between news consumers’ paradigms. It is not an argument about reality, which is neither a pentagon nor a circle.”

So how can a reader or viewer “test his interpretation of the news about an event against the event itself”?

Facts and Truth Are Not the Same Things

Koerner’s background is in the philosophy of science, so he goes to that knowledge to resolve the conundrum. First, he notes that “scientists never believe they have the truth.” He boldly states that whenever you hear someone say, “It has been scientifically proven that…” chances are the speaker is not a scientist. Scientists are “fundamentally agnostic.”

“The path of science,” he says, “is the path toward truth. But like all paths, it can be moving toward the destination only if it hasn’t yet arrived there. Each step along the way is an ever closer approximation to truth.”

He notes that in science, one completely new fact can, “without any previously recognized facts being found to be wrong, totally change the underlying theory that the data as a whole support.” As an example, consider the following new fact added to the data reported in the news story.

All the facts presented in the original story are true, but this alternative story contains one additional fact that changes the whole paradigm. It can’t be a circle and it can’t be a pentagon. What the hell is it? Here are the facts upon which the original story and the alternative story are based.

Aha! And that is a paradigm shift. New data produces a new perspective.

So where can the news consumer go to get additional data points? Koerner tells a story which is very revealing about paradigms. It reminded me of the course I took in linguistics in university. My professor related how different languages evolve to fit particular paradigms. As an example, he noted that the Inuit language has 50 different words for snow. Snow is so important to the Inuit that there are separate words for what in English amounts to the word snow with an adjective modifying it. So there are words that mean wet snow, dry snow, blowing snow, heavy snow, and so on. There are nuances to snow that we don’t even recognize.

Koerner tells us that the Chinese word for “should,” yinggai, “does not have the connotations of moral obligation that the English word does.” The implications of this are mighty.

Chinese culture and language, Koerner tells us, do not incorporate “the Western notion of natural moral law.” When he studied Chinese and came to understand this fundamental fact, he realized that there was a great divide between Western and Chinese culture.

“This fundamental fact about Chinese culture plays out whenever we in the West marvel at their apparent lack of concern for human rights within their own country or abroad,” he notes. “This means, of course, when we in the West get a concession out of the Chinese in this area,” it is not because we have convinced them of a moral point, but rather that they have decided to accommodate us and maintain harmony and a good relationship.

“Harmony and relationship are two notions that are very strong in the Chinese paradigm,” he continues, “but they are not based on what someone from the Judeo-Christian culture would regard as an absolute morality.” One wonders if our diplomats and political leaders understand these cultural differences when they broach the topic of human rights abuses with their Chinese or other Asian counterparts.

If It Bleeds, It Leads

Another problem with the media that Koerner notes is that the media tends to cover the extremes and not the middle. This is obvious in the case of an extraordinary event like a fire or a robbery or a shootout. When you turn on the television news, you don’t see stories about the houses that did not burn down or about the businesses that were not robbed.

If it bleeds, it leads. In other words, the most violent and extreme occurrences in society are brought to the top of the news heap. This leads to a distortion of perception. It instills fear and paranoia.

The same holds true for political news. Koerner calls this a bias towards what is easily seen. “Voices of moderation (often the voices of peace in situations of conflict or potential conflict) are under-represented, and extreme voices are over-represented in all sectors of the media.”

He continues:

“Animus and posturing of any stripe sell more than common sense. A provoked consumer is an engaged consumer. For these and other reasons, reported content tends to be written from the ends of a prevailing spectrum of views about an issue, rather than the middle, and reports on a conflict situation tend to reflect the positions that are at odds with each other, over facts and opinions that do not support either side of the conflict.”

Koerner points out that the media relies on pundits with an opinion, even if those pundits have been wrong in their analyses in the past. As he puts it in one his sub-headings, “The media have an awful track record at identifying awful track records.” A brilliant book on this phenomenon is Dan Gardner’s Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway.

So what are we, as news consumers, to do to get around this plethora of incomplete, misleading, and skewed information?

Variety Is Key

Koerner recommends getting our news from a variety of sources, including a website he recommends called This site takes news stories from around the world to see how America is seen in the eyes of foreign journalists. A news site like Al Jazeera can give us insight into the Middle East that is absent in the mainstream media. And gives us the news from a Russian perspective.

It is up to the consumer himself to dig deeper if he wants to understand the nuances of the news. Koerner also recommends alternative media. “News outlets with audiences that are unsympathetic to the establishment are usually more useful” than the mainstream media, he argues. What media this might be can change with circumstances. He points out that right-leaning Fox News was notoriously sycophantic when reporting during the Bush years, accepting at face value whatever came out of the White House. But during the Obama years, it became a trenchant critic.

The various media operate under certain paradigms and each news consumer looks at the information with his or her own paradigms. A truly objective understanding of the news may take more effort than many want to put in. It takes considering the perspectives of alternative media and of foreign media. But ultimately what we take away from any story is what we put into it.

It is easy to condemn and blame the mainstream media. But the mainstream media reflects its consumers and gives its consumers what they think those consumers want. Ultimately, it is up to the consumer himself to dig deeper if he wants to understand the nuances of the news.

If we as news consumers blithely accept what the mainstream media spoon feeds us, if we accept news filtered through paradigms we may not agree with, if we don’t dig deeper to get at the real news, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Visitors to FEE can pick up a personally signed copy of Robin Koerner’s book (including a foreword from Jeffrey Tucker) from the author’s website.