The Value of Truth in the Fake News Era

We have all heard the phrase “fake news” bandied about over the last couple of years, most notably by and in the context of Donald Trump. Though the US President uses the term to attack the press, NCM wanted to get to the real root of the phrase. We especially wanted to contextualize it for news and politics.

This past weekend, the first of three “Fake vs Fact” workshops organized in collaboration with New Canadian Media, ByBlacks.com and the National Newsmedia Council, took place in Toronto at Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss fake news. The workshop looked at how to spot fake news, how to stop it and how to define it. To discuss fake news’ consequences was a major factor for the gathering of news professionals and community members.

Members of the audience learning about “fake news” at New Canadian Media’s “Fake vs Fact” workshop held in Toronto. Photography by Marcus Medford.

What is fake news, really?

“Fake news” has been said so often that it has become a catch-all term that has lost meaning. When people discuss fake news, two other words that often come up are misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is information that is not accurate. For example, if I were to say “the current prime minister of Canada is Pierre Trudeau,” that would be misinformation. Think of misinformation as “mistaken information.”

Disinformation is information that is false and spread with the explicit intention of deceiving. If, for example, I said “I am the current prime minister of Canada,” that would be disinformation. Think of disinformation as “dishonest information.” Disinformation is meant to fuel insecurities, stoke fears and create division. It has a motive or an agenda to push, whether personal, financial or political. When people say something is “fake news” they are likely accusing the information of being disinformation.

The term “fake news” is also inaccurate because usually, the false information circulating is not spread by a legitimate news organization or an accredited member of the media. Fake news is typically shared via social media, which is problematic because it allows little accountability. It is difficult to verify information but easy to share on social media. On these platforms, content that gets a lot of engagement gets ranked higher. It will hence show up earlier in search results and on newsfeeds/timelines, increasing the likelihood that it will be seen.

Responsible journalism: consumption

Sharing is a huge problem when it comes to disinformation. That saying “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on,” is particularly true when it comes to disinformation online. It can take hours to fact-check a story, which not everyone knows how to do. Also, it is rare to be punished for spreading disinformation online.

Journalist Susana Mas explains to the audience some of the tools available for combating fake news, such as how to do a reverse image search. Photography by Marcus Medford.

One of the speakers at the workshop, award-winning journalist Susana Mas, recommended that people create a checklist of questions they must answer before deciding to share a post. She said that we should ask ourselves questions like, who’s sharing this information, do you trust them and what’s the original source? It is important to consider the source of the information itself and not just the person who has presented that information to you because while you might trust the person sharing the post, you might not trust their sources.

Mas stressed the importance of viewing media like pictures and videos with a critical lens, even seemingly-innocent things like memes. It is important not to react too emotionally or too quickly when it comes to headlines and tweets, Mas remarked.

“Words matter. And we all have a role to play” as both producers and consumers of news, she added.

Responsible journalism: production

Responsible journalism is of the utmost importance given the prevalence of disinformation and misinformation ahead about the federal election. Performing journalism responsibly means being transparent with your information: revealing what you know, what you don’t know and how you came to know what you do, including providing links and sources.

It is okay to not know something, or to have incomplete information, or to say that the story is being followed and will be updated. Again, in the age of fake news, it’s more important to be accurate than to be first.

Being a responsible journalist means accepting that you have a bias. Biases evolve from our experiences and perceptions, both of which are unique to every individual. If you can identify your bias, you are better equipped to keep this in check and make sure they do not bleed into your work.

Another aspect of responsible journalism is not spreading stereotypes or hurtful tropes about people, particularly marginalized groups. Words matter and so do the connotations of the words you use. For example, referring to immigrants or refugees coming to a country as an “invasion” is both inaccurate and inappropriate because it has a negative image and a negative connotation to it.

Eva Salinas warns the crowd about the dangers of fake news and misinformation and the effects they could have ahead of the federal election in October. Photography by Marcus Medford.

“Change starts with individuals, and it’s important that we start,” said Eva Salinas.

Salinas is the managing editor of OpenCanada.org and a journalism instructor. She was one of the speakers on Saturday. According to Salinas, people care about the issue of fake news and want to get involved, but do not always know-how.

Salinas said that our individual voices are more important now than ever: “We all use our voice in different ways, and we have to use them responsibly.”

The future and fake news

I, like workshop speaker Brent Jolly, the director of communications, research and community management with the National Newsmedia Council, found our conversation encouraging.

In the era of fake news, I see our role as journalists as being similar to that of climate scientists. We have to share what we know with the public because the issue affects us all. We cannot deny the problem or run away from it because the effects are real, and if we don’t act the consequences could be dire.

Dear Trudeau, I’m Not Mad, Just Disappointed

Four years ago was the first time I was able to participate in a federal election. I was in the third year of my journalism program. I was beginning to develop the casual cynicism that is so common among journalists when it comes to politics. So when Justin Trudeau won while talking about issues like truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and the importance of diversity, I genuinely started to believe that politics could be done differently. 

Now, just over a week into the new federal election campaign, Trudeau is in hot water after images of him in racist costumes emerged. Three separate instances of the PM dressed in brownface or blackface have surfaced since Wednesday night. First, Time magazine released a photo of Trudeau at an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala hosted by West Point Grey Academy, at which he taught, dressed as Aladdin. Trudeau was 29 at the time and the only person photographed in brownface. The second incident is a photo of Trudeau performing the song “Day-O” at his high school’s talent show, “wearing makeup.” Then, in a video shot in the early ‘90s obtained by Global, Trudeau can be seen wearing blackface. 

What is blackface/brownface?

Dressing in blackface is the practice of non-black people darkening their skin and exacerbating stereotypes to mock black people. Blackface in the 1820s involved minstrels using exaggerated accents, malapropisms and outlandish clothes to ridicule black people. It has been used to belittle, dehumanize and spread harmful stereotypes about black people. Calixa Laval, the composer of the Canadian national anthem, travelled as a blackface minstrel. 

The first person of colour (POC) to lead a major Canadian political party, Jagmeet Singh of the New Democratic Party, was “jarred” seeing Trudeau in brownface. Singh has previously opened up about his experiences with racism and gave an emotional statement in response.

“Any time we hear examples of brownface or blackface … it’s making a mockery of someone for what they live and what their lived experiences are,” Singh remarked.

Trudeau said that he didn’t think his actions were racist at the time but now realizes that they were. He has since apologized and asked that Canadians forgive him, adding that he’s “pissed off” with himself.

As a POC, I’m pissed and disappointed too

I’m upset that a well-educated, 29-year-old teacher didn’t have the sense to realize that brownface and blackface are racist. It is concerning considering that Trudeau became the Liberal’s critic for youth and multiculturalism in 2009, then the critic for citizenship and immigration in 2010.

As Tariq Amin-Khan, an associate professor of political science at Ryerson University, points out, “at one level (his response) shows that Justin Trudeau’s understanding about race and racism doesn’t seem to have deep roots.”

Trudeau embraced minority groups and Canada’s multiculturism during his time in office. At one point, seven of his 35 Cabinet members were ethnic minorities. In the wake of this scandal, we wonder if Trudeau was showing a genuine desire for diversity and inclusion, or just tokenism or overcompensation?

Last February, Trudeau announced that Canadians must address the anti-black racism affecting more than one million black Canadians. He then called for equal opportunity and equal treatment for black Canadians.

However, with this scandal, it is hard to take the prime minister’s words seriously. By wearing blackface, Trudeau failed to treat black people with the respect we deserve and robbed us of the opportunity to define and represent ourselves. Blackface attempts to establish essential differences between POCs and white people and suggests that black people are inferior as a matter of biology. Regardless of Trudeau’s intentions, the three images of him support this ideology.

A look to the election

Singh said that the blackface incident is an “ongoing pattern of behaviour that’s really going to hurt Canadians.” I agree and disagree. I agree that Trudeau’s actions have hurt many Canadians and that they’re part of a bigger pattern. However, I do not believe that Trudeau is a racist who hates black and brown people. 

The disappointing pattern I’ve noticed with Trudeau is the dissonance between his actions and his words. I was jarred when I saw the images of Trudeau. How could someone who champions multiculturalism and immigration do something like that? But it fits the larger narrative. Justin Trudeau the climate change activist who approved the Trans Atlantic Pipeline; the feminist who kicked Jane Philpott and Jodie Wilson-Raybould out of his Cabinet for disagreeing with him.

I understand that politicians are complicated and that it’s important to avoid making sweeping conclusions around election time. But I will say this: before voting this Fall, remember to carefully consider the politician and the platform. Consider the claims they make about themselves and their opponents; consider what issues matter most to you and vote for the candidate who will disappoint you the least.