Fake News Isn’t New; History Offers A Way To Fight It

Imagine opening your morning newspaper (itself a novelty these days) and finding a story about, not just life, but entire civilizations on another planet, attributed to one of the world’s foremost astronomers. Would you believe it, or might you suspect that some “alternative facts” had found their way to your doorstep? Back in 1835, many readers in New York ended up believing just such a tale. The New York Sun, then one of the city’s leading newspapers, printed an elaborate six-part series about exotic animals living on the moon (including human-like creatures with wings), purportedly discovered through a gigantic newfangled telescope. The source of the information was Sir John Herschel, who was an actual real-life astronomer but had nothing whatsoever to do with the Sun’s scoop.

Rough image of lithograph of “ruby amphitheater” described in the New York Sun newspaper in August 1835. Public domain image.

  Somebody at the
(just who remains something of a mystery) made the whole thing up, in an effort to goose its circulation. The hoax did eventually unravel, although the newspaper never retracted the story. Today, of course, we are battling similarly fake news, found not only in dark corners of the Internet but in mainstream venues such as Facebook. Yet, even in our “post-truth” world, it is still virtually unthinkable that a major newspaper in a major U.S. city would publish information that it knew to be demonstrably false. Are journalists inherently more responsible today than they were in 1835? Are they simply less interested in building an audience for their work than their predecessors? No, and no. The difference is that today’s journalists operate within a system that provides the audience with confidence that what they are reading, hearing or watching is true—a system which developed organically and relies entirely on voluntary compliance. In the 19th century, newspaper audiences had no reason to be confident in the veracity of what they were reading. Professional training for journalists did not exist, nor were there any widely accepted standards for how news should be gathered or produced. Many newspapers were also aligned with a political party and used their news columns to support a particular partisan viewpoint. The Sun, which began publication in 1833, was at the vanguard of what was called the penny press—a low-cost, mass produced product that democratized access to newspapers beyond the well-to-do. But a mass publication required a mass audience, which led, regrettably, to travesties like the Great Moon Hoax. This situation reached its nadir in the 1890s, with so-called “yellow journalism,” in which sensationalism, scandal and stretching the truth all became the order of the day. However, those excesses contained the seeds of journalism’s redemption.

A profession with professional training

Photo by Daniel X. O’neill on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Reporters who recoiled at what the news business had become decided that if journalism was to become respectable, it had to be thought of as a profession. And a profession required professional training. The first journalism schools emerged in the first decade of the 20th century at the University of Missouri and Columbia University in New York (the latter founded by Joseph Pulitzer, one of the chief progenitors of yellow journalism.) Journalism schools not only taught the basics of how to report and write a news story; they also inculcated journalists in a set of ethical and professional standards to guide them in their work, including a prohibition on overt partisanship in news coverage that came to be known as “objectivity.” Walter Williams, founding dean of Missouri’s journalism school, encapsulated these standards in 1914 in a document he called the Journalist’s Creed, which asserted that public journals are a public trust and the journalist’s task is to serve the public good. The creed also says “accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism” and that “a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.” In other words, no room for moon hoaxes. Or fake news. Because the First Amendment precludes government regulation of the news media in the United States, compliance with these professional standards was entirely voluntary. No force of law required news organizations to follow them, although almost all of them did. Admittedly, this voluntary regime has been imperfect in preventing demonstrably false material from getting through audiences, but it has provided a degree of confidence in the reliability of news coverage that no other country can match. Fake news and the concept of “alternative facts” have arisen today largely because people who have not been trained as journalists, or inculcated in journalistic values, are now behaving as journalists. Any fool with a computer can become a publisher, which inevitably leads to foolishness. And the temptation to do whatever is necessary to attract an audience is as strong today as it was for the publisher of the Sun back in 1835.

A swing back to trust

But the good news is that although the pendulum may have swung somewhat away from confidence in news credibility, history provides some comfort that it can swing back. Already, we are seeing news organizations partner with Facebook to flag and fact-check questionable material. People who care about facts, and having training in standards, are once again asserting themselves on the public’s behalf. So the next time you read about Hillary Clinton operating a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor, don’t despair. People will eventually figure out there aren’t really animals on the moon. Rich Shumate is a media historian and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida. He is a veteran journalist and former news editor at CNN.
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