The phrase “fake news" has gotten a lot of traction since the 2016 presidential election. After being adopted by supporters of one candidate to describe slanted or biased coverage, “fake news" took on a politicized meaning and may have allowed some ethical blind spots to pass unnoticed. This usage obscures the term’s original intent, the meaning it had when it was first coined: news that has been sensationalized to the point of falsification, mainly to grab cheap attention online.

A Case Study in Ethical Blind Spots in Journalism

Consider this headline from a recent online NY Post article. Remember, the intent is not to defame the Post, but to illustrate a problem with online journalism more generally: “Winter storm in Midwest has turned deadly."

The article, which was written from AP sources, fairly accurately describes a recent winter storm from the perspective of Chicago residents. The facts are all, insofar as they can be checked, technically accurate, but the article goes well beyond just describing the storm. The writer of this piece explicitly blames the weather for two deaths: one, a driver whose car was rear-ended by a truck, and the other a man who suffered a heart attack while shoveling his driveway.

This is par for the course in most journalism, especially the click-hungry online variety, but a careful reader has the right to ask a few questions. How, for instance, does this writer know these deaths were caused by the storm? Maybe a case can be made for the truck driver, who would presumably have had an easier drive if it hadn’t been snowing, but how can the author of this piece be sure the man who died shoveling snow wasn’t due for a heart attack anyway? Or that it was the storm that killed him, in a way that more gentle snowfall would not have?

Another valid question is one of framing. In this piece, the storm is described as “deadly," which certainly implies people died because of it. But this perspective ignores the reality of day-to-day life, that people die all the time, and for reasons unrelated to the weather. That “deadly" winter storm probably encouraged some people to call off from work, rather than brave the roads. This may have actually reduced the traffic in affected areas and probably reduced the chances of fatal car crashes. After the storm, when those people took to the roads again, it’s a fair bet that some unfortunate ones were killed in subsequent crashes. Would that writer for the Post then submit an article titled: “Sunny day kills six"?

“Fake news" conceals a kind of ethical blind spot in journalism. To thrive, a careless or misleadingly written piece doesn’t need mindless partisans reading it, but just a casual indifference to whether the narrative is really accurate.

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