Fake News Writers: Ethics Doesn’t Sell

by Shannon Brenner 

When I was a kid, I’d stare at the magazines near the cash register while waiting in the grocery store checkout line with my grandma. The Sun, The National Enquirer – pieces of “journalism” that everyone knew weren’t real. It was simply entertainment, “smut papers” as my grandma called them, while she chuckled at headlines about aliens and celebrity gossip from her recliner.

Now, these “smut papers” exist exponentially on the digital platform. Websites, Blogs, Facebook, Twitter feeds – platforms where professional writers can publish outlandish stories and get paid for every click, like, or share. But where do we draw the line? Should professional fake news writers be expected to adhere to a code of ethics?

For starters, let’s have a clear definition of the term “fake news”. The Ethical Journalism Network defines fake news as “information deliberately fabricated and published with the intention to deceive and mislead others into believing falsehoods or doubting verifiable facts.”

The reason professional writers produce fake news is obvious. In This article from the Washington Post, Abby Ohlheiser reported that fake news writers can earn more than $5,000 per month. For example, during the 2018 presidential campaign, a fake news story with the headline “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE” received over half a million Facebook shares.  Undoubtedly, that resulted in a major payday for the article’s writer.

Some people argue that fake news writers shouldn’t even get the title of “professional writer.” But professional writers target a specific audience, present a clear message, and persuade their readers. We come in all shapes and sizes, and fake news writers aren’t the only ones trying to deceive the public. One look at these Marlboro ads and it’s easy to see professional writers (yes, content marketing counts) sending false messages to a vulnerable audience, much like when Trump supporters were duped into thinking that the Pope endorsed their candidate last year.

Take a look at this excerpt from the Washington Post interview with Paul Horner, the so-called King of fake news writing, and it is easy to see that he considers his work the craft of a writer, “…I don’t like getting lumped in with Huzlers. I like getting lumped in with the Onion. The stuff I do — I spend more time on it. There’s purpose and meaning behind it. I don’t just write fake news just to write it.”

So why am I calling out fake news writers like Horner and not those at the Onion? One simple fact: Satire publications like the Onion don’t try to look like real news. Included in The Onion’s Tips for Keeping Journalistic Integrity are gems of wisdom such as, “As a journalist, it’s your responsibility to recuse yourself from reporting on any crimes that you have personally aided or abetted.” One look at their home page headlines and it’s clear that the site is satire. The real culprits are fake news writers whose intention is to trick their audience into believing (or just clicking) their stories.

So we’ve established that fake news writers meet the qualifications of professional writers. So shouldn’t they be held to the same ethical standards as their counterparts in other industries? As listed by Contently, a content marking website, general ethical standards in the world of journalism include:

  • Seek the truth as fully as possible.
  • Act independently.
  • Seek to minimize harm and behave responsibly.
  • Be accountable.

Although the world of professional writing encompasses much more than journalism, it seems as though nearly all of its branches involve ethical standards. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Fostering scientific advancement requires strict adherence to ethical guidelines for research and scientific writing.” Writers in advertising and public relations adhere to codes of ethics published by the American Advertising Federation, and the Public Relations Society of America. Even the American Grant Writer’s Association has a comprehensive list of ethical standards.

Like other professional writers, fake news writers can have far-reaching impact. Horner authored several viral articles about the Trump campaign last year, including one shared by Trump’s own campaign manager that claimed a Trump protestor had been paid over $3,000, an article which Horner admits he contrived completely, down to creating a fake Craigslist ad. Horner’s work echoed into the Trump presidency when Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that paid protestors showed up to GOP town halls in a public statement back in February. And who can forget the man that opened fire at a D.C. pizzeria last year after reading a fake news article accusing Hillary Clinton of harboring child sex-slaves in the establishment.

Writers of fake news stories reject every one of journalism’s ethical standards. They certainly don’t seek the truth, since the truth doesn’t sell. They feel no obligation to minimize harm and behave responsibly. And while writers like Horner admit that their articles may have heavily impacted the presidential campaigns last year, it’s not stopping them from producing more fake news today.

It is this domino effect of lies and false accusations, sometimes with detrimental consequences, that warrants the need for some type of ethical considerations for this genre of writing. With the recent explosion of the field of fake news and its societal implications, it’s time for a Fake News Code of Ethics. Until then, I’ll stick to reading about Brad Pitt’s body odor in my grandma’s smut papers.

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