Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ryan Watson reviews The Roots of Fake News

Brian Winston and Matthew Winston. The Roots of Fake News: Objecting to Objective Journalism. New York: Routledge, 2021. 224 pp.

Review by Ryan Watson

15 September 2021

While Donald Trump recently popularized the term fake news, the idea did not originate with him. As Brian Winston and Matthew Winston eloquently and entertainingly prove in their highly readable The Roots of Fake News: Objecting to Objective Journalism, the idea stretches back to the fifteenth century, making it a problem that has vexed generations. Further, the problem of fake news shares roots with problems inherent in journalism itself. The solution to the problems? The authors argue that we must dispense with the fallacy and standard of objective journalism, which they contend is not possible. Because the news is a product of selection, story, and tone–– not to mention it is produced by humans, with all their inherent subjective biases––journalism can never be objective, no matter how much one wishes it to be. And, unlike fake news, objectivity as a journalistic standard is a relatively new phenomenon, premised on the professionalization of journalism in the twentieth century that caused journalists to “clothe themselves in sobriety” (pp. 9–10). This, however, sets up a highly unrealistic standard that is never met, and thus “every visible failure can seem like further evidence that the news is not to be trusted,” dooming journalism to fight against accidental errors that foster an impurity and incompleteness it can never escape (p. 13). The problem is not that there is biased journalism; the problem is that many people believe there is such a thing as unbiased journalism.

The authors argue that to put journalism back on track in its rightful and important functions, it should return to the type of journalism seen in the early American republic through the nineteenth century, which aimed to persuade and inform, while openly wearing partisanship. Objectivity, as it currently manifests as a noble goal and benchmark, actually “obscure[s] the exercise of power in the realm of news” (p. 197). The move to a more subjective, partisan journalism is also “better suited to the actual nature of the news’s audience” (p. 197). To evaluate the potential of their model, they compare it to Michael Schudson’s six core functions of journalism: to provide information not generally known, to investigate the powerful and guardians of public welfare, to be a public forum for ideas, to analyze the contexts that events occur, to encourage social empathy with the lives of others, and to mobilize, in a partisan way, groups of like-minded citizens.[1] Brian Winston and Matthew Winston conclude that a return to the more boisterous, independent, persuasive, and openly partisan journalism of previous American centuries will fulfill these six core functions and help to heal what is mistaken as a uniquely modern crisis. It was not Trump or social media that spurred the fake news crisis, argue the authors, it was journalism itself, promising the impossible of objectivity and always coming up short. “It is our fundamental idea of journalism which is broken. That is what needs to be fixed” (p. 201).

Brian Winston and Matthew Winston convincingly argue that fake news is not new, and journalism has been broken for decades. However, this iteration of fake news is one of many symptoms of a new, multifaceted, ever-growing, and deep epistemic crisis that is fueled by digital disinformation, propaganda, media illiteracy, corporate, profit-driven news, and social media. Getting rid of the pretense of objectivity in journalism is one of many necessary but not sufficient responses to the crisis. Without addressing the interlinked factors that fuel the crisis, more partisan journalism on its own is unlikely to move the public into the realm of fact, truth, empathy, and questioning power. Rather, it will further refine the news and information filter bubbles that already alter how many people consume and understand the world. These filter bubbles, fueled by social media in pursuit of profit and data, feed people news and information that conforms to and constantly reinforces their worldview. This situation divides people, obfuscates knowledge, and inhibits any sense of a collective good. Schudson’s six core functions of journalism and the authors’ belief in the potential efficacy of journalistic practices depend on a world with more public faith in institutions and common, widely agreed upon knowledge and facts, as well as a robust and trusted nonprofit, public media sector as an alternative and corrective for corporate news. Without those foundations, and concomitant work against the many forces working to constantly erode and corrode them, the solutions offered here to the ongoing, historically rooted phenomenon of fake news will likely not be successful and, in the short term, could even make things worse. That said, the authors have provided an invaluable historicization of fake news that reveals the deep roots of our current situation. 



[1] See Michael Schudson, Why Democracies Need an Unloved Press (Malden, Mass., 2007), p. 12.