Identifying 'Fake News' Is More Art Than Science

The New York Times slams Larry Kudlow for circulating fake news during the 2008 recession, but the Times said the same things at the time.

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It's not just President Donald Trump who thinks "fake news" is a problem.

Even The Washington Post's Bob Woodward is warning that some reporters are becoming "emotionally unhinged" covering President Trump and crossing over into a "tone of ridicule."

Science magazine, the peer-reviewed journal whose headlines usually run to "Random heteropolymers preserve protein function in foreign environments" or "Organometallic and radical intermediates reveal mechanism of dipthamide biosynthesis," devoted a recent article to "The science of fake news." It observed that "general trust in the mass media collapsed to historic lows in 2016."

The Science article was by David Lazer of Northeastern University, Matthew Baum of Harvard, and 14 other scholars affiliated with, among other institutions, MIT, Tufts, Indiana University, University of California Santa Barbara, Dartmouth, Yale, Columbia, Brown, and Boston College. They advocated identifying and reacting to "fake news" in part by focusing on the intent of publishers.

That, they write, "allows us to avoid the morass of trying to evaluate the accuracy of every single news story."

With all due respect to the academics, evaluating the accuracy of "every single news story" is precisely the responsibility of every single reader. The alternative—blindly trusting the story, suspending skepticism or independent judgment just because the article confirms your existing point of view, was shared on social media by a friend, or comes from a "credible" news organization—is a kind of infantilization.

To the credit of the academics, they float "empowering individuals" as one possible solution to the "fake news" problem. They mention "education" to "improve individual evaluation of the quality of information sources."

They do, though, worry that "an emphasis on fake news might also have the unintended consequence of reducing the perceived credibility of real-news outlets."

It seems to me that the bigger risk to what the academics credulously call "real-news outlets" is that editors erode a publication's credibility by allowing inaccurate, partisan, fraudulent, or tendentious news to slip through. It's not just the outright hoax-perpetrators such as Janet Cooke at The Washington Post, Stephen Glass at the New Republic, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times. It's also the way bias, double-standards, or sloppiness slip into even run-of-the-mill, routine news coverage.

Take, for example, The New York Times' news article reporting on President Trump's decision to hire Lawrence Kudlow as chairman of the National Economic Council. It devoted three paragraphs to a poll that "found support dipping slightly for Mr. Trump's signature tax law: 49 percent of respondents approved of the bill, down from 51 percent in February."

Given that the poll's margin of sampling error was 1.5%, the idea that a two percentage point move either way is newsworthy is questionable. If the poll had moved two percentage points in the other direction and President Trump tweeted triumphantly about it, you can bet that Times "fact-checkers" would have been all over his case about being statistically illiterate.

The same Times article faulted Kudlow for having been "wildly wrong" by, as the Times put it, "denying the existence of recessions while they were already underway during President George W. Bush's administration."

As an example, the Times quoted Kudlow as writing in December 2007, "Despite all the doom and gloom from the economic pessimistas…the resilient U.S. economy continues moving ahead."

It's not clear to me that Kudlow's December 2007 view qualifies as "wildly wrong." The nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research, which has a committee of eminent academic economists that retrospectively dates recessions, describes December 2007 as "the peak of the business cycle," meaning that it was both the "last month" of the expansion and the "first month of the recession." Fourth quarter real GDP growth in 2007 was positive, not negative.

Even if Kudlow was wrong, wildly or less than wildly, in December 2007, he sure had plenty of company. One Times news headline from that month was "Shares Rally on Surprisingly Strong Jobs Data." The lead paragraph of that news article spoke of "renewed optimism about the outlook for the economy." Another Times news headline from that month was "Economy Holding Up, Reports Find." That article began, "Maybe the American economy is not going to keel over just yet, after all. Government reports released Thursday showed surprising resilience in the broader economy."

Attempting to evaluate the accuracy of each individual news story may be a "morass," as the peer-reviewed professors put it. But readers who shirk the task do so at their own peril.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.

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31 responses to “Identifying 'Fake News' Is More Art Than Science

  1. To know if something is “fake” you have to know what the truth is. Moreover, you have to know that the person who created it was lying and not just making an honest mistake. That is a pretty tall order. Does “Fake news” exist? Sure. But so what? Saying fake news exists is just another way of saying lies exist. Lies have always existed and always will. They are part of life.

    1. Journalism evolved standards, and those standards are shat upon every day by FOX News. Intelligent people can figure out what’s good reporting and what’s partisan propaganda.

      You know the difference between you people and liberals? We watch Rachel Maddow and say things like “You know, I need to follow up on that thing she said. She seems a little strident today.”

      You people watch Sean Hannity and daydream about him finding you and employing you to apply moisturizer to his balls.

      1. No, I think that last part is just you.

        Or maybe it’s your Maddow fantasy.

        1. I wouldn’t touch Rachel Maddow with Sean Hannity’s vagina.

          1. It’s true. We never touch Rachel Maddow with Sean Hannity’s vagina.

      2. Hahahaha, phew – that was a good one.

      3. Intelligent people can figure out what’s good reporting and what’s partisan propaganda.

        Nice own-goal there.

        1. Just doing my part not to toss the entire Enlightenment into a woodchipper for the sake of a single useless political party.

    2. John, shouldn’t you be writing about how heteropolymers are more natural and why homopolymers should not be allowed to mix together in the same petri dish?

    3. To me, “Fake News” referred to those things you saw on Facebook all through the election like “Pope Francis endorses Trump” and the like. Things that were really obviously counter-factual and completely un-sourced. The kind of thing that at least 99% of people roll their eyes at and move on.

      But since then it’s just become the way CNN viewers refer to Fox and vice-versa, which is really an argument about slant rather than “fake vs. true.”

      “CNN is Fake News” “No, Fox is Fake News” “No, CNN. . . ” etc., etc., ad nauseam.

    4. Post libertarian ideas in most places and you will be labeled a troll because one couldn’t possibly believe such nonsense

    5. Fake “analysis” is pretty easy to spot, and that’s a cornerstone of “news.”

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  2. It is science.
    If it is NYT, it is fake, that is a given
    .
    For other outlets, if there are multiple cited, verifiable, named sources, that agree, it is news. If not, it is not news, it is guesswork unworthy of publication.

    1. Except when news organizations parrot each other without checking the source which seems to be the case of lately repeating anything on twitter or from an unathorized source thats never named

  3. Don’t fact check me, bro.

  4. Science magazine, the peer-reviewed journal whose headlines usually run to “Random heteropolymers preserve protein function in foreign environments” or “Organometallic and radical intermediates reveal mechanism of dipthamide biosynthesis,” devoted a recent article to “The science of fake news.”

    Science does a lot of readable articles. They are a broad, relatively mass consumption journal. It’s one reason it is so prestigious and tends to be pretty good. Is that they emphasize readability.

    1. And?

      Science and Nature are the epitome of intellectual hubris.

  5. The NYT has mastered the art of omitting key pieces of relevant data while still claiming that the data they deign to reveal is true, so what’s the problem?

  6. Read the full article. — Link broken

    View this article. — Link OK

  7. They do, though, worry that “an emphasis on fake news might also have the unintended consequence of reducing the perceived credibility of real-news outlets.”

    That’s why you just deem “real-news” as coming from “real-news outlets” and “fake news” coming from “fake-news outlets”, and, why, look just how simplistic it got!

    Is it real-news? Well, does it come from a real-news outlet? Why, then, it’s real, regardless of how wrong it is! Oh, it comes from a fake-news outlet? Well, that’s fake, no matter how true it is. And we know real-news outlets because they produce the real-news, while the fake-news outlets produce the fake-news.

    Ambiguity removed, and problem solved!

    That and we should just censor everyone except certain specific newspapers and TV anchor personalities because the first amendment says “press,” and clearly that only applies to everyone I like and no one I don’t. Problem solved!

  8. It’s not art; it’s not science.

    If it’s on TV it’s fake.

  9. The disaffected, marginalized, and polemical offering pointers to legitimate journalists is one of the curious wonders of American free speech.

  10. So what is “news”? Is it simply information with some authoritative status? If so, then does the content on a Facebook page or in a Tweet written or forwarded by a neighbor have more status than the same info passed verbally while at the mailbox? And in the devolving world of infotainment, what importance do most people place on accuracy?

  11. Looking for real fake news? NY Times, Washington Post, CNN and Huffington Post is all the farther you need to look. I can’t stand the Trump guy but I can’t even watch CNN anymore because their skewed coverage makes me sicker than reading even the stupidest Trump tweet. Jonah Goldberg was 100% correct – liberal fascism.

  12. The reason, all three of the misleading stories citied by Mr. Stoll, were discovered was due to the diligence of the papers which originally published the stories and which then revealed the falsehoods and fired those responsible. When was the last time Fox News issued a retraction on any story- Bill O’Reilly was on the air recently when his supposed reporting was proved wrong; he simply took a breath and changed gears. No discussion of what went wrong, no analysis of why the prior statements were wrong. Instead, it was as if the misstatements never happened. When Rush Limbaugh defended “the Party of God,” and called President Obama the anti-Christ for opposing them, only to find out they were a terrorist group, his only comment was to say that he should have researched them more thoroughly. No apology and no retraction. None of the stories cited above were allowed to remain in the public domaine. Reporters may tilt stories to reflect a viewpoint, consciously or unconsciously but readers can usually see the slant; identifying outright lies is another matter. Remember the flap raised by Breitbart and Fox over the supposed anit-Catholic emails sent by the Hillary campaign when said emails only discussed opinions by some staff members on the Church’s position on birth control and noted that the majority of US Catholics opposed that position?
    Is that deliberate misrepresentation of the facts better than the Time’s questioning of Kudlow’s position on a recession?

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