The term "fake news" began as a global appellation for telling lies during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Donald Trump popularised it, but it has evolved into a malleable expression subjectively applied to muddy the waters of public discourse - calling into question the very notion of truth.
The term itself is a construct for another; it existed before the internet and search engines, and it was called "tabloid" or "yellow journalism". Those weekly, mainly women's magazines at supermarket checkouts abdicated any journalistic responsibility and essentially abused their public duty, with the full support of the mainstream media. For its part, the mainstream media did not call this out because fake headlines and stories about celebrities and the infamous were considered fair game, and these publications were no competition to their news production.
Technology changed that. But the vertiginous decline of the industry cannot be blamed on technology alone, nor Google, Facebook or Twitter individually. The media itself needs to take responsibility for taking its eyes off the ball.
Today, the bigger our population gets, the smaller the pool of journalists and commentators. Once upon a time, the reporting of a journalist and the views of a commentator belonged to one masthead or a broadcaster. Nowadays a select few talking heads are in print, on TV, on the radio and on whatever other media they can plaster themselves across, collecting multiple salaries along the way. The echo chambers have leapt from the virtual into the mainstream realm. We already know what is said, we already know the views - why would we want to read it, hear it, and watch it again and again? No wonder the public is switching off - and no wonder many are turning to the internet, fake news and all, for greater diversity.
The dominance of a select commentariat during major developing events, such as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, highlights a deep self-belief among some in the industry that leads them to never contemplate giving a platform to journalists of colour, young people, or women or non-binary people. Instead, the discussion remains within intellectual boundaries and realms of experience. Media organisations have decided that their greatest competitor is social media, and for over a decade followed a strategy of competing for and giving platforms to a cliquish group of commentators that can be packaged as a brand. It's star power over substance, to the detriment of other voices.
The media (which includes the ABC and SBS) has failed to comprehend that as the population has grown substantially, so has the diversity of views. Many mindsets and beliefs no longer sit within the confines of the existing two camps in mainstream politics. The diversity of reporting and opinion has shrunk to a handful of players on both sides of the aisle, locked in a never-ending duel. It has become so pugilistic it has diminished sensible conversation and the art of persuasion that is so essential to democracy. It has meant politicians have forgotten about the very people they are meant to be serving.
Let's not kid ourselves; words of hate and incitement have been spoken, broadcast and shared for years along with fake news. It is systemic, and it will take a collective effort to change the rhetoric of "otherness" that has been wielded by those with bad intentions. C. S. Lewis once wrote: "Where we find difficulty we may always expect that a discovery awaits us." That difficulty and discovery is before us. We can choose to lift journalism to the highest form of work that it is or we can continue down the Twilight Zone.
- Neheda Barakat is a journalist and producer who has worked for the ABC, the Nine Network and Al Jazeera English.