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In 2017, the term “fake news” was so popular that it received the “Word of the Year” honor from the American Dialect Society. Since then, its popularity may have abated some, but its use persists. Most obviously, anti-press speakers weaponize the term fake news to undermine journalists and the press as an institution. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, the term is also in regular rotation among many who would seem to support a free and independent press, including scholars, teachers, and journalists themselves.

The continued and often-uncritical use of fake news should worry us. As thinkers across disciplines have recognized for centuries, the names we use matter. Names shape the very way we understand things. And this is especially true when it comes to the press.

Although conventional wisdom is that press power and freedom spring primarily from the First Amendment, in reality, the doctrine is that the press has no greater rights than any other speaker. Press power and freedom are derived in large part from customs and norms. And those customs and norms draw sustenance from the positive language of the courts, other institutions, and the public about how the press serves the democratic functions of truthful educator, trusted proxy, and fair watchdog.

Press power is, in great part, rhetorical power.

This rhetorical power is especially fragile in our networked information sphere. As we are coming to understand, when labels or narratives are decontextualized and amplified, we begin to internalize and adopt them, sometimes regardless of their accuracy or how savvy we believe ourselves to be. Moreover, what is blunt and vitriolic generally scales further and faster than what is nuanced or measured. As a label, fake news is arguably becoming so entrenched and normalized that it might ease the way for other terms that rhetorically marry the press to falsity, bias, and laziness—like “pink slime journalism”—to slip into our everyday discourse.

If protecting the press was the only goal of curbing anti-press rhetoric that would be enough. But there is another reason to do it. How we talk about the press plays into how we tackle one the biggest challenges of our networked age—stemming information pollution. Fundamental to this effort is separating accurate information from false, trusted sources from manipulated ones, and journalism from propaganda and marketing. If we use labels that conflate these categories, we make a daunting task harder. For these reasons, it is increasingly important that we take care in how we talk about the press.

Publication Citation

Erin C. Carroll, How We Talk About the Press, Geo. L. Tech. Rev. (forthcoming)