During this moral panic of fake news, a lot of people have expended a great deal of energy arguing over what news sources are trustworthy and what news sources spew lies. Most of the people arguing in this debate lack any arguments remotely approaching objectivity. Instead they declare whatever sources agree with their biases as trustworthy and whatever sources disagree with their biases as great deceivers.
I tend to take a more cynical approach. I assume anything being fed to me by a major media outlet is mostly bullshit with, at most, a few kernels of truthful information buried in the muck. My cynicism allows me to read stories like this with no feeling of surprise:
A German journalist who trekked to Fergus Falls, Minn., to profile a rural Midwest community after President Donald Trump’s inauguration wrote that he was greeted at the city limits by a sign that read: “Mexicans Keep Out.”
Problem is, the sign reporter Claas Relotius described in his March 2017 article in Der Spiegel, a German language news magazine, never existed. Some of the quotes in the story were made up, too, as were some of the anecdotes — from a brewery hosting a Super Bowl viewing party (the brewery was closed that day) to the city administrator hosting a “Game of Thrones” quiz night (the city leader said he doesn’t even own a TV).
On Wednesday, Der Spiegel disclosed that Relotius, an award-winning reporter, confessed to fabricating at least 14 articles out of the nearly 60 he wrote since 2011, including the descriptive article about Fergus Falls.
If Der Spiegel was on your list of trustworthy sources, you might want to scratch it off. If Der Spiegel was on your list of great deceivers, don’t let the feeling of smugness overcome you because I guarantee you that Relotius isn’t alone. Most major media outlets likely have at least one if not several Relotiuses.
Determining if a story is “fake news” requires more than checking if it aligns with your personal biases. It requires performing an investigation into the journalists’s supposed investigation. If the journalist quoted somebody, you need to find that person and verify that they said what the story claims they said. If the journalist claimed to have seen a sign, you have to go to where the sign supposedly was and verify that it existed or, if it has been removed, find photographic evidence that it existenced. Without that kind of due diligence a journalist could be lying and nobody would be the wiser, unless he later confesses as Relotius did.