But with so much more information out there, what exactly do print publications do when it’s on that train? And will that force print publications to change their relationship entirely?
“The role used to be that the way information was propagated was by the media, and it was the only way to get it out there,” said Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired. “Now the role of the media is to add value to that kind of conversation and ask how much weight to give it. It’s not so much breaking news as much as legitimizing news.”
He continued: “How do I add value? Really only two ways—either you have a source, or make a call or add a dimension to a story that didn’t exist. You add your own insight, and you might be able to analyze to give it a context that’s worth noting.”
Fake news is not to be confused with false reports. But the latter is a great culprit for creating the former. Back in November, NPR reported that at an Iowa campaign stop, Hillary Clinton had stiffed a waitress. The story boomeranged around blogs and news outlets. One problem: It wasn’t true.
“The speed thing—100 reporters jumping on a story—actually speeds up the vetting,” said one Clinton beat reporter.
Drudge jumped on it; so did the ABC campaign blog, as did many others. But when the Clinton press team jumped back and showed it had left a $100 tip on the $157 bill, well, NPR was forced to run a correction.
And for everyone else: another news item!
Back in February, Bill Clinton made a statement sizing up the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“You have to decide what this election is about. You have to decide what makes the best president. You want someone with the right vision, the right plans and ability to get the job done. If that’s the test, I don’t think the question is close.”
Beyond that, he said, “all the rest is smoke and mirrors.”
The de-contextualized quote was jumped on. The Huffington Post headline: “Bill Clinton Calls Obama Campaign ‘Smoke And Mirrors.
Many “reports” followed correcting or contextualizing the quote. More fake news!
“Drudge rules the world,” another political reporter said. And indeed, fake news owes a lot to reporters’ habit of Refreshing Drudge for the Latest.
“I think the Web is an elegant tool, but I can tell you from personal experience at The New York Times that there is a change in expectation of metabolism and urgency around the Web,” said Mr. Carr.
He said that back in the days when you’d get ink all over your hands, big beats would have three or four sources, and if you stay locked into them, you’re fine. But now? “Every beat has sort of adopted this increased metabolism and can get beat on any subject on any number of sources. There are curveballs everywhere.”
The result is everyone has to hustle. “Editors are waving at you, and waving at you to come up with something that matches and covers you now.”
Because that’s another way the Web has changed journalism. It used to be a rumor circulated, or was published on a blog, or even in a tabloid newspaper, and you’d check The Times the next day to read the sober follow-up. How much of it was true? Often, you’d search The Times and find it nowhere.
But fake news is so viral, it declares its own importance. If millions of your readers think Hillary Clinton stiffed a waitress, you have to write about it, right?
Wired editor Chris Anderson thinks the whole concept of “news” is changing. There’s no value in really breaking stories anymore. Once you’ve published, everyone’s got it, right? It’s just a question of who can rake in the traffic.
There’s the moment when Bob Novak declared in a piece in November that the Clinton campaign was sitting on top of a big bombshell about Obama. It was the dark heart of fake news: speculative, oddly sourced and, finally, without any substance. How big? There’s no saying. Will it ever come out? Will it ever be news? But there it was, in black and white, the story that launched a million more stories.
“Would he have done that 20 years ago?” asked Adam Nagourney. “I mean, I don’t know. It never struck me as peculiar to this culture for him to say that.”
And did The Journal cry wolf? The day before the Couric story ran, The New York Times published a story on a possible arrangement where CNN would contract news to CBS. What was a perfectly suitable incremental story suddenly got huge play on Drudge; first with a headline, then with a link to The Times, then with an enlarged picture of a tearful Katie Couric.
“The difference with incremental journalism is that the increments are measured in minutes and not days and weeks in the way it used to be,” said Mr. Carr.
What did The Times do with the Katie Couric story? Nothing till April 11. Its own follow-up appeared at the bottom right-hand corner of its Business Day section.
That story moved the ball forward: It reported on a meeting that Katie Couric had with CBS executives where they discussed the possibility of her departure, a month and a half before The Journal story was published; but, The Times reported, a decision would be made after the election, or possibly much sooner.
Between the lines, the story read as a lecture on fake news.
“However, rumors from CBS News and reported in the news media may have, inadvertently or not, done what the meeting failed to do: ensured Ms. Couric’s early departure.”
“Couric’s Fate Was Topic A in CBS Suite.”