In about two and a half weeks, we’ll know what Lake Superior State University’s list of banished words for 2018 contains. I’m betting right now on a specific phrase to top the list, especially considering how much it’s been used and abused over the past couple of years: “Fake news.”
The term was used to describe completely fabricated stories, those based on conspiracy theories, and uncorroborated comments, and the websites and other sources that peddle them. Tabloids like the defunct Weekly World News, the Globe and others are notorious for this sort of thing, often taking a tiny grain of truth (well, not Bat Boy) and wrapping it in sensationalism. On the Internet, these stories are often called “clickbait.” (You just won’t believe how completely made up they are! Click here to see the top 10 reasons why!)
How it’s been used in the past couple of years, however, is to refer to any negative news about Donald Trump, or, more broadly, any news with which you disagree (because facts are very mean, ya know, and obviously have an agenda). If a story’s considered by someone who reads it as unfair, unprofessional and/or biased, then it’s called “fake news.” But I guess that if actual fabricated stories are positive, then they’re not fake … yeah, I’m confused as well.
It’s this sort of chicanery that drives people like me more nuts than we already are. That’s saying something.
Last month Collins Dictionary, based in the U.K., named “fake news,” which it said has increased 365 percent in usage since 2016, as its 2017 word of the year. Collins disputes the president’s claim that he invented the phrase, noting that it’s been in use on U.S. television since at least the early 2000s to mean “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.” Sure, Trump might have invented the use of it to describe whatever coverage one doesn’t like, but no, he didn’t come up with the phrase (or “prime the pump” either). Merriam-Webster puts the phrase back much further, having been used in newspapers in the 1890s.
Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary named it as its word of the year for 2016 almost a year ago. Editor Susan Butler told the Guardian Australia: “There’s now this belief that one’s personal intuitions about something are more valuable than actual knowledge. I can say ‘that’s fake news’ because I feel that it’s wrong. The irony is that, in a world where it is so easy to check the facts and to get information as you need it, we’ve decided to toss the whole thing overboard and rely on intuitions.”
That’s really the big reason the phrase “fake news” (as it’s now used) irritates so many responsible journalists. There’s a difference between sloppy journalism/honest mistakes and actual fake news: Fake news has an intent to deceive, either to further an agenda or just to perpetuate a hoax. Sloppy journalism makes all legitimate journalists look bad, but in so many high-profile cases, it’s because corners were cut, not because someone intended to deceive, and serious errors are corrected as soon as possible. Seldom if ever do legitimate journalists make these errors purposefully because the consequences can be very harsh (though there are some journalists who’ve skated by for years mostly on the strength of their names—that’s something traditional media need to address).
For those who toss around “fake news” about anything with which they disagree, corrections are seen as proof that the media they don’t like lie. Corrections, though, are indicative of a level of care that some outlets don’t have. You don’t want to see a lot of corrections, but their total absence should serve as a warning. I’ve seen far too many debunked reports quietly pulled with no reason given, or allowed to remain uncorrected … and if it confirms what you believe, you’re not going to believe anything else. Once it’s on the Internet, it’s forever, and all the fact-checking in the world won’t eradicate it, especially if the source refuses to correct it.
Regardless of how many times the president attacks the media he doesn’t like, it is important to keep reporting. Standing up for the First Amendment is kind of our jam.
“Fake news” isn’t the only word or phrase some of us would like to see fall by the wayside. “Alternative facts” really should be “alternative to facts” because so often they aren’t factual (you know, as in reality-based … so not like the Bowling Green massacre). “Nothingburger” seems more often attached to things that actually have some substance. Besides, chicken burgers are better. (I can’t really digest red meat anyway, and turkey doesn’t have as much taste.) And “snowflake”? It seems usually that those who use the word to apply to people rather than fallen hexagonal bits of ice or the butterfly are every bit as overly sensitive (if not more so) as those they label. “Collusion” and “complicit” aren’t doing themselves any favors either.
We can’t really banish words, but it doesn’t hurt to bring overused, misused and abused words and phrases to the forefront so that people can see how annoying they are. There are words I use that some wish I would stop using (I’m guessing “reality” and “facts” qualify for a few), just as there are words other implement that I’d love to get shed of, possibly using a bazooka.
What words have been bugging you this year? Send an email to email@example.com, and I may use your submission in a future column (we word nerds need to stick together).
And keep an eye out for that “fake news.” It seems to be getting thicker lately. I’d get some boots if I were you.