Fake or Real?

Suppose you were arrested. You hired an attorney to defend you, and you won the case in court. Would you say that was a “fake” arrest?

Imagine that your family is planning a picnic this afternoon. You tune in to a local weather report and find out that a severe storm is on the way. You cancel the picnic. Was that a “fake” weather report?

You and a friend go to a movie and really enjoy it. Later you come across a review of the movie. The reviewer thought it was awful – badly written and acted, with a boring plot and dull characters. Was that a”fake”movie review?

I would say that the arrest, weather report, and movie review all were real. They happened. There was nothing make-believe about them. To me, “fake” means “not true.” An example would be a false murder scene: Someone laid a mannequin in a dark alley and shook catsup over it to look like blood.

Another example would be fake Rolex watch. It wasn’t manufactured by the Rolex company, and the quality is poor. It’s not a real Rolex.

Lately “fake news” has become a popular complaint. Some people don’t seem to know what “fake” means anymore. If you don’t like something, it’s fake. If it offends you, or it’s confusing, it’s fake.

This week someone on Quora argued that English spelling is “fake” because there are so many inconsistencies. Silent and psychology start with the same sound but are spelled very differently. So are key and quiche – and there are many others.

I understand their point – but I’m also flummoxed. If you say that psychology is a fake spelling, you seem to be asking for someone to supply the real one. But that isn’t what the questioner was asking. Apparently they were trying to say that the spelling doesn’t make sense, and why don’t we do something about it?

Perhaps in 20 years, “disagreeable” and “confusing” will be the dictionary definitions of fake. The meanings of words often change over time, and it could certainly happen to fake. (Silly used to mean “innocent,” for example.)

But right now we seem to be mired in confusion. People don’t trust the news media because all the reporting is “fake.”

Does that mean that journalists are making up – for example – the news that President Trump wants to extend the US-China trade talks past the March 1 deadline? I just saw a video clip of President Trump talking about the proposed extension. Is that “fake news”? Was I watching an actor pretending to be President Trump? If so, why didn’t the White House denounce it?

Language is a complex tool. Sometimes it shines a light on the truth; at other times it’s cagey and slippery. My suggestion today is that we try to be as precise as possible.

The English language is richly endowed with words we can use to disagree with something: error, mistake, distortion, dishonest, lie, bias, cover-up, oversight, overreaction, confusion, conspiracy, and so on. “Fake” – in my opinion – should be reserved for those eyelashes I used to buy at CVS to wear at dance competitions.

a fake mustache, nose and eyeglasses

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6 thoughts on “Fake or Real?

  1. AvatarDarrell Turner

    A related issue is what is considered bias in news reporting or academic writing. Bias does not involve falsehoods but rather only partial information. If a news report or an academic paper presents only one side of an issue without acknowledging that there is another side, it is biased, even if everything in the presentation is true.

  2. Avatarjas

    Darrell Turner makes an excellent point. I would like to toss a little more into the mix. If the weather report predicts a nice day when there is a terrible storm raging through the area, even just outside the reporter’s window, that should qualify as fake news. If ninety percent of the media demonize a school group on a peaceful tour of their nation’s capital, presenting them as privileged racists, while ignoring ample evidence that the students actually had been victims of hostile verbal abuse and had reacted with Gandhian passive resistance, that should qualify as fake news.

  3. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    I would not call either example “fake news.” Both reports really happened. I would use words like “unprofessional,” “unethical,” “careless,” or something similar.

  4. AvatarWilliam Vietinghoff

    Calling something “fake news” is an imprecise response by many people who use that term, not necessarily claiming that the facts have been manufactured, as a means to express their recognition that a news report is not totally representative of what happened. This “misrepresentation” is performed by journalists in two ways: (1) by editorializing instead of straight reporting. (which I was told should never be done). For example, straight reporting might say “The representative of the local taxpayer association appeared before the City Council to offer data showing the proposed sales tax increase was not justified.” It is now unusual nowadays to read “Jim Perkins, gadfly for the local tax association, made his appearance to whine about the unnecessary sales tax increase.” The second statement is not “fake news”, but members of the tax association could argue that the news article is does not reflect the truth.
    Method (2) is: use high-level abstractions rather than give the specifics. The problem with abstractions is that they refer to a hierarchy of things with some similar and some different characteristics. When people see or hear an abstraction used to define a “thing” they automatically assign those same characteristics to everything in the set. Journalists use abstractions to avoid stating what actually happened. For example, a news article might state “The Fenton School Board, in last night’s meeting, reaffirmed that their Nutritional Policy required complete compliance by parents of the students.” This form of reporting avoids saying something that makes the school board look foolish. The non-abstraction article would read “The Fenton School Board ruled that Mrs. Stafford could not give her son chocolate chip cookies to take to school to share.” Again, the first version is not “fake news”, but Mrs. Stafford could reasonably argue, “why don’t they report the news the way it happened?”

  5. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Absolutely right, William – and terrific examples! I hadn’t thought of classifying the misrepresentations the way you did. You added a level of precision that’s totally missing when news is simply labeled “fake.” Thanks!

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