Ethics media criticism

Fake news: Nothing new in the history of journalism

Fake news is nothing new.  When people talk about it on the internet and social media, they treat it like it’s society’s newest trend.  But that’s far from the truth. Fake news is as old as … wait for it … the story of the birth of Jesus.

But let’s start with the definition of fake news:  It’s reporting stuff that never happened and treating it as true.

Like saying Hillary Clinton ran a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington.

And while the internet spreads fake news faster than ever before, it’s nothing new – fake news goes all the way back to the beginning of American journalism.

Some early news stories were probably fake just because there was no way to verify them.  Newspapers did the best they could, but if someone told the editor that the royal governor was stealing from the treasury, there was no way that could be checked out.

In 1782, no less a journalistic icon than Ben Franklin published a fake news story that Native Americans seeking an alliance with Britain had sent the king a “bag of scalps.” It never happened.

In 1835, the New York Sun ran a series that purported to report on an astronomer who had built a telescope powerful enough to observe life on the moon.  Not a story, mind you – a whole series of articles that described the moon inhabitants and their civilization in great detail.  And the end, the paper told its readers that they had just been kidding.

That’s only the tip of the fake news iceberg.  The stories about the new phenomenon of fake news are – you guessed it – fake news.  It’s been around as long as there has been news.

This week we celebrate the best news mankind has ever heard.  The news was so significant that God entrusted it to angels – the word “angel” is a Greek word for messenger.  According to scripture, God often entrusted news to “messengers” — you could say that angels were God’s journalists.

But as soon as the Good News about the birth of Christ was written down, the fake news started showing up.  And today, much of what we believe a bout the nativity story is fake news.

For instance:

•Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas. The early church set the day of Christ’s birth in December as a way to help replace a pagan festival that was held on Dec. 25.

•The angels did not sing to the shepherds. An angel spoke to the shepherds, then a lot of angels began praising God, but we have added the “singing” part.

•The wise men probably did not visit Jesus right after his birth in Bethlehem. They look cool in nativity scenes, but they really came a year or so later. And we’re not even sure there were three of them — we only infer that from the number of gifts.

But despite all the fake news about the good news we celebrate at Christmas, that good news is not diminished by the fake news and legends that have grown up around the birth of Christ.

And no less a philosopher than John Stuart Mill reminded us that truth is dynamic – so we should not ban false utterances because truth only becomes stronger when it grapples with a lie.  How do you know, Mill asked, whether what you believe is true, unless you have to defend it against non-truth?

Fake news is reprehensible, and digital media certainly give it more reach and power than ever before. So it’s important that newspapers report the truth and expose the lies.

The journalism “family tree” is a lot like your own.  There are saints and sinners, martyrs and scoundrels. But after more than two centuries that include lies and hoaxes and fake news, journalism has never been freer.  Or more responsible.

And that’s something we can all celebrate on a holiday dedicated to the original “good news.”

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.