Guarding Against Fake News: The Pope’s Methods vs. Trump’s

Pope Francis tackled the topic of fake news one week after President Donald Trump released his “Highly Anticipated 2017 Fake News Awards.” The messages from the pope and the president couldn’t be more different about the post-truth era.

“Whereas the president would tell you what is fake news (CNN is, he says; Fox News is not), the pope would rather you figure it out. In fact, his message is more or less a how-to guide,” wrote The New York Times’ Avi Selk.

The Pope’s Jan. 24 message, entitled “Fake news and journalism for peace” for the 2018 World Communications Day, argued that “the truth will set you free.” His message came one week after Trump’s awards arrived as a blog post on the Republican National Committee’s website, slamming 11 mainstream news outlets’ inaccurate reporting about the Trump administration.

“2017 was a year of unrelenting bias, unfair news coverage, and even downright fake news. Studies have shown that over 90 percent of the media’s coverage of President Trump is negative,” read the awards post.

Like Trump, the Pope is also targeted by perpetrators of fake news and has been known to have a rocky relationship with the press. Fake news about the Pope claimed that he endorsed Trump for the presidency.

The Pope’s message came after a week of bad press during a South American tour where he faced massive protests against the appointment of a bishop who allegedly covered up a notorious pedophile priest in Chile and for accusing the victims of “slander,” wrote The Associated Press’ Nicole Winfield.

What is fake news? And are Trump and the Pope conflating bad press with inaccurate, widely distributed accounts written as though they are true?

Defining Terms

Merriam Webster does not offer the word in its dictionary yet, but a post on the website offered up this definition: “Fake news is, quite simply, news (‘material reported in a newspaper or news periodical or on a newscast’) that is fake (‘false, counterfeit’).”

The Pope defined fake news as “the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on nonexistent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.”

The Pope argued that fake news is dangerous because of its ability to mimic real news and perpetuate stereotypes and social prejudices, which spread easily on social networks’ echo chambers. Without the confrontation of real news, he continued, disinformation thrives.

Was the Pope Subtweeting Trump?

One key element was missing in the Pope’s assessment of the fake news era. “The message made no reference to how some public figures — most notably U.S. President Donald Trump — often label unflattering or critical reports ‘fake news’ to try to discredit the information,” the Times’ Winfield noted.

Just because the president’s name didn’t appear doesn’t mean he wasn’t a target of the message, others argued.

CNN’s Rosa Flores wrote that, instead, perhaps the Pope is trying to send a message to Trump and other world leaders who use the term “fake news” by offering constructive communication and discouragement of false reporting, like his 2017 World Communications Day message condemning bad news that spreads fear.

“If you’re wondering, no, the Pope does not mention Trump in this message,” Selk wrote. “Not that Francis mentioned him by name either during the 2016 campaign, when he told reporters, ’A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.’”

Constructive Criticism

Both the Pope and Trump criticized journalists, but the takeaways differ significantly.

The Pope said “peace is the true news” that journalists should strive for by reporting on falsehoods. His ideal version of journalism serves people — especially those who do not have a voice — by reporting on underlying causes of conflict and “pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”

The Pope sounded hopeful and supportive of journalists, who he called the “protectors of news,” but he did offer a warning: “Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons.”

While all of Trump’s fake news awards highlight news articles with incorrect reporting, his awards blast respected mainstream news outlets that made mistakes in political reporting.

The president used his platform to call out specific news outlets instead of addressing a larger post-truth era with viral, purposefully false “news” about everything — from online trolls showing a picture of a comedian as the suspect for the London Bridge attack to images of victims of the Manchester Arena attack.

Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are absent from Trump’s list of mostly liberal-leaning news organizations, such as CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer wrote that Trump’s “awards” highlight a larger pattern of attacking the mainstream media, especially outlets that pose critical questions about his presidency.

The irony here, Heer noted, lies in the fact that, “Trump is a purveyor of numerous falsehoods, both trivial (the size of his inaugural crowds) and serious (birtherism, and the claim that the Russian collusion story is a ‘hoax’).” By attacking the media, Trump tries to discredit news institutions that prize holding people in power accountable, Heer wrote.

Much like the Pope’s warning about echo chambers, Heer wrote that “the problem isn’t just that Fox News sometimes presents patently false narratives, but that its audience is addicted to it — often to the exclusion of other news sources.” Not surprisingly, that news outlet did not make the Trump list.

The Pope goes one step further than Trump by saying that everyone needs to help stop fake news, arguing “that is why education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.”

Discerning the truth needs to be a lifestyle of communication and a willingness to listen to other people, the Pope said.

It appears from the “fake news” awards that Trump would like to make fake news all about himself. Luckily, a new dialogue started by the Pope puts fake news in a larger context of constantly seeking out the truth, no matter the topic or political climate.

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