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Just the facts … please

Fake news is a term bandied about in almost every news cycle. What constitutes fake news? Well, that may be hard to say. Impossible, really. Still, President Trump proclaims almost daily that news organizations are putting out incorrect or intentionally misleading reports absent of fact checking and follow-up.

Regardless of whether he’s right or wrong, the debate has been interesting. “Fake news” wasn’t even a term used by most people two years ago, and today it dictates the way the world perceives the media and reporters.

In 2017, Collins Dictionary named “fake news” the top word of the year. According to its research, usage of the term increased by 365 percent since 2016.

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That leads me to wonder if news organizations do purposely issue false claims and made-up stories. I doubt it. Do news organizations have an overt slant to their stories that disregards their purported balanced approach? Maybe. Even Fox News, which claims to be fair and balanced, certainly has a hard time substantiating that claim. Its popular show “The Five” usually features four staunch conservatives and one lonely liberal. That’s not really balanced, is it?

The fact is, news organizations are supposed to be profitable. Higher ratings lead to more advertising revenue. And competition is fierce – make that cut throat. Everyone is chasing the almighty dollar regardless of any loftier goals.

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Take CNN. It knows its audience and is continually working to expand it. Producers and editors create content to appeal to viewership, listener-ship and readership. They know that if a large segment of the CNN audience doesn’t like a certain political pundit during its morning show, they may switch to another program. Poor ratings mean things must change. That’s true for all news organizations.

When you appeal to your base (a term used often in politics), you are solidifying a position within a competitive marketplace, and you do not want loyal followers to migrate to a competitor. Anyone in marketing knows about market segmentation. Simply put, you identify likely clients/customers and attempt to appeal to their preferences. You offer up solid content, appeals and calls to action, and you hope they respond. News gathering organizations are no different.

CNN continues to succeed in spite of Trump’s “fake news” allegations. According to Forbes, “Ratings for CNN, and other cable news networks, are soaring. CNN’s ratings are up 51% compared to this time last year among adults 25 to 54 years old. Fox News is up over 50%. MSNBC is up more than 30%. Cable news ratings normally fall precipitously after a presidential election.”

All reporters want to “break” the story. Does the challenge of being not only the first but also the best and most thorough make them vulnerable to the charge of fake news? The rush to deliver the news first (if it is news) can lead to lower vetting standards and potentially to a report that is incomplete or not fully correct. In this instant gratification world with a 24/7/365 news cycle, it is no surprise that mistakes, even big mistakes, occur.

This blog will not settle the debate on fake news. It is important, however, to understand why these claims may be made. In the rush to be first, best and most watched, mistakes will occur. But there is a major difference between a mistake and fake news.

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