Be Careful of Charging 'Fake News'

The phrase “fake news” is thrown around loosely in political discourse, but using it to describe a story you dislike or an editorial you oppose could wind up exposing you to a libel suit as the news media begins to push back against such charges.

The phrase “fake news” is thrown around loosely in political discourse, but using it to describe a story you dislike or an editorial you oppose could wind up exposing you to a libel suit as the news media begins to push back against such charges.

It has become common to call out reporting as “fake news.” It soon may become common to face libel charges for making the claim falsely.

The publisher of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel is preparing a libel action against a Republican Colorado state senator, whom the newspaper has endorsed, for calling the local newspaper “fake news” on Twitter and Facebook.

The state senator, who represents Grand Junction and was a regional field director in the Donald Trump campaign, made the charge after the newspaper published an editorial urging him to move a bill in the committee he chairs updating Colorado’s Open Records Act.  The editorial came after the state senator cancelled a hearing on the bill, which prompted the social media posts:

“The very liberal GJ Sentinel is attempting to apply pressure for me to move a bill. They have no facts, as usual, and tried to call me out on SB 40 [known] as the CORA bill. They haven’t contacted me to get any information on why the bill has been delayed but choose to run a fake news story demanding I run the bill. You may have a barrel of ink, but it just splashed in your face.”

The publisher, who previously was a litigator, said, “What I consider actionable is the attack on the Sentinel as fake news. I can take criticism that we’re too far right, or we’re too far left, or our reporter was sloppy, or our editorial misunderstands the issue, that I can handle. What I can’t abide is an attack on the essence of what we do.”

Regardless of who is right or wrong or whether a libel action is filed or not, this story, recounted in Columbia Journalism Review, illustrates the perils of flinging around the charge of “fake news.”

There are certainly examples of fake news in the form of fabricated events or data, which can be posted on social media and gain wide circulation, including in more traditional media. Disinformation appears to be a more prominent political tactic employed in the United States, and not just by one side of the political spectrum. First Lady Melania Trump has filed a libel suit involving a factually inaccurate story about her.

Charging “fake news” has emerged as a sharper-edged shortcut for saying you disagree with a story or a point of view. But it could be a dangerous shortcut.

A standard definition of “fake news” is publication of material that is intended to fool readers deliberately to boost subscriptions, viewership or web traffic and, consequently, generate ad revenue. Credible publications correct or retract stories when material facts are wrong. On their opinion pages, they provide space in op-eds and letters to the editor for dissenting points of view to their editorials.

“This industry has taken it and taken it and taken it over the last several years,” the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel publisher says. “And now we get diminished as fake news, going to the core of what we do. And we don’t push back. Well, I’ve had it. I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The publisher may not be alone in pushing back on charges of fake news. As communications counselors, we advise clients to notify reporters and editors when their stories contain factual errors of consequence and ask for a correction. But that’s not calling out the media for publishing or broadcasting fake news.

You should be wary of using that phrase unless you really have the goods on why a story or editorial is intentionally falsified, not just a story you dislike or a position you oppose.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.