Immediately after the passage of the Constitution, the collection of 10 amendments we now call the Bill of Rights was ratified. The first amendment guarantees that Congress shall make no law infringing upon freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition. Recently, many news sources have been using their first amendment privileges in the United States to propagate what has been come to be called “fake news.” Although this modern phenomenon is not uniquely American, it’s in this country (and in the presidential election) that the impacts have been most tangible.
The press has long held a unique position in the United States and is known colloquially as the fourth estate. The people of the republic have relied on the press to engage in investigative reporting and reveal issues within government. The corruption surrounding Tammany Hall helped establish The New York Times as one of the country’s foremost papers. Journalists’ investigations into financial irregularities surrounding the construction of Tweed Courthouse showed the public the value of an independent and free press.
This role of the press is underappreciated by the populous. Many historians of journalism point to Watergate as the moment when public opinion began to turn against journalists—this trend continues today in Trump’s attacks on both reporters and liberal media outlets. The press doesn’t have to be loved in its role, it must be respected and trusted.
Fake news has begun to erode the ability of respected journalistic outlets to provide this check on the power of government. As more and more of our supposed news comes from online sources, often transmitted over social media, it becomes harder and harder to separate fact from fiction. This process is only accelerated by the efforts of some public figures to spread these false narratives.
The growing preponderance of these fake news sites has hastened the demise of respected news outlets, the same outlets that have done the most to protect our republic and the rights of its citizens against overreaches of government power.
What can we do to prevent this dangerous option? I offer two simple suggestions.
First, let’s not rely on our Facebook and Twitter feeds for news stories. By clicking on clickbait, we are providing financial incentives to the organization that comes up with the most clickable title—and not the most truthful. We instead need to be reading The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune, watching CBS, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, and Fox, and listening to NPR. All of these sources take thoughtful, investigative looks into the world and governments around them. Even when websites like Buzzfeed provide meaningful, truthful news, they still largely reprint stories published in other news sources. By looking to Buzzfeed instead of The Wall Street Journal for news, we fail to support active discovery and analysis.
Second, let’s be careful about the news that we share. Even when sharing news that is not fake, but still heavily biased, the gravity of more important, objective news decreases. A hypothetical New York Times article about widespread corruption in the federal government has become increasingly likely to be lost in a sea of similarly titled articles that were merely crying wolf.
Don’t let the rise of tainted news distract from the fundamental importance of news. Tocqueville wrote, upon visiting America in the early 19th century, that perhaps the most interesting thing was that somebody in Detroit—on the outskirts of civilization—was reading the same news as a merchant in Boston. This is where the strength in American republicanism lies, in the power of truthful, respectable, and reliable news sources.