COLUMN: Truth, lies, fabrications and fake news

COLUMN: Truth, lies, fabrications and fake news

Fabricating news stories is not common, but it does happen from time to time

“This is fake news!” The accusation caught me off-guard.

A reader who contacted me recently was outraged with a story in our paper.

The story did not measure up to this reader’s expectations, and so it was labeled as “fake news.”

When I studied journalism, the term “fake news” was not in use. The term came into vogue around the time U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

In earlier times, those in my industry would talk about fabricating news stories or parts of stories. This could include making up a quote and attributing it to an actual person or adding a fictional person to a story.

At worst, it would mean writing a completely false story about a nonexistent event and passing it off as news.

This does not include satire pieces, such as those published by The Onion, The Beaverton or Andy Borowitz’s pieces in the New Yorker. Those are clearly identified as satire or parody, not news.

Fabricating news stories is not common, but it does happen from time to time.

One example is Stephen Glass, a writer with The New Republic, who fabricated a number of feature articles in the 1990s. The 2003 movie Shattered Glass chronicles his downfall.

Others who have been caught fabricating stories include Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Brian Williams.

But their stories did not involve coverage of major events.

Cooke’s story from 1981 was about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. There was no such boy.

Glass’s downfall came because of a story about a 15-year-old hacker who was hired by a major tech firm. The firm and the hacker did not exist.

The news story in our paper was about an event that would have been nearly impossible to fake.

At least six local, regional and provincial news sources were on location to cover what was happening.

If any of us had distorted or made up the story, it would have attracted attention from those who had seen additional coverage. Yet nobody else made the fake news accusation about our coverage — or about the coverage from other news outlets.

Could we have all agreed on a false narrative and then presented it together? If so, how could we have presented this story to the public?

Many people were at the event. Any of them would have called us out if the coverage was inaccurate or deliberately misleading.

Fabrication is and has always been a serious matter for those who work in news reporting. We want to have the trust of those who turn to us for information.

However, too often those talking about fake news are not referring to fabricated stories, falsified quotes or other deliberate attempts to deceive.

Instead, “fake news” has become a code phrase to refer to any coverage a reader, viewer or listener doesn’t like.

In this case, the person was outraged because the story presented opinions they did not support and did not wish to read.

A news story is not supposed to take sides and a reporter’s personal position should not show in any news coverage.

Opinions belong in letters to the editor and in opinion columns, such as this one or Tom Fletcher’s B.C. Views, elsewhere in this paper. Opinion pieces should be labeled as such.

While I disagree with the reader who voiced the fake news allegations, I am pleased this person contacted me and raised these concerns.

It shows this reader and others hold us to a high standard and expect excellence in reporting from us.

I want to deliver on that expectation, even when the story will not please everyone.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.