Bad journalism is as old as journalism itself. It can be bad because the writers and editors are lazy, or it can the result of bias, malice and mischief.
It is true that the internet has made it easier to indulge in bad journalism (though new technology has hugely increased the opportunities for good journalism too).
And it is also true that state-sponsored information attacks, targeted to exploit social and political weaknesses, are on the rise, notably with Russia’s interference in Ukraine since 2014, and in the American presidential election last year. These attacks particularly exploit the anonymity, immediacy and ubiquity that the internet offers.
But we should be careful not to conflate different problems. Motives range from greed to ideology. Some stories may be invented but are broadly harmless (such as “news” about UFO sightings, astrology or miracle cures for cancer). Others may be broadly true, but based on theft—such as hacked e-mails or leaked government documents—used selectively and out of context to make a political point.
The term “fake news” is therefore increasingly unhelpful. Donald Trump’s critics started employing it to highlight what might be called his terminological inexactitudes in presidential tweets and utterances. Now the President himself deploys it to lambast his critics for bias and sloppiness. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine uses it to highlight flaws, real or imagined, in Western media coverage. “Fake news,” in other words, has become shorthand for “news I don’t like.”
We should not give up scrutinizing content. Facts and arguments may be open to different interpretations in many cases, but truth is truth. Russia really did invade Ukraine and seize Crimea. The Malaysian airliner MH17 really was shot down. No amount of Kremlin “whataboutism” or moral relativism can change that.
But it will usually be more profitable to look at the channels through which bad journalism and information attacks flow, rather than getting bogged down in the blurry difference between mere sloppiness and deliberate falsehood.
It’s fairly easy to get some clues about whether a website is really a news outlet. Does it have a street address? Real news organizations exist in the real world, whereas many of the worst propagators of information attacks and bad journalism keep their identities secret. A particular test is a “who is” search—the internet equivalent of a birth certificate. If that has been intentionally obfuscated, or if the details are fake, then something odd is afoot.
Another big question is whether real people are involved. Do the “journalists” who have purportedly authored the stories have any independently verifiable existence?
These tests are not conclusive, because there may be good reasons for anonymity—for example if a website deals with human rights in Russia or China. Transparency is not an absolute virtue: the right to be private is important too. But even in a website which necessarily has to be discreet about some sources and methods, one would normally assume that at least part of the organization is public.
The third test is journalistic standards. Does the website show any willingness to engage with the outside world? A generic e-mail address or contact form does not count. Does it show any sign of interacting with its readers? Does it accept comments or letters to the editor? Perhaps most important of all, does it publish apologies, corrections and clarifications?
Mistakes are endemic in journalism; real news organizations take pride in dealing with them honestly and openly.
Applying these tests will not stop bad journalism or guarantee excellence. But they would make it easier to spot those who are determined, for whatever reason, to mislead us.