In the Trump era, we’re increasingly debating what is ‘real’ news and what is ‘fake news’. I think most sensible people can agree that information that is patently untrue and not verifiable counts as fake news. For example, if a news outlet were to run a story based on Internet rumors that could not be otherwise verified, it could be problematic. Likewise, if a politician were to talk about massacres that never happened, those ‘alternative facts’ could certainly be counted as fake news. But what do we call it when meaningful events happen that experience a nearly complete television media blackout? Is no news the same then as fake news in a modern era?
Let me offer an example — this weekend, the Scottish Labour Party was having its annual conference in Perth and major British Labour leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson, and Sadiq Khan were speaking at the conference in support of Kezia Dugdale’s Scottish Labour Party and ideas for the coming year. Though in 2015, Dugdale argued that should a second Scottish independence referendum occur, she would allow her Labour party members to make their own decisions, this year Dugdale reversed that position saying that Labour would never support a second referendum. Her idea for this conference is a ‘federal’ system giving the nations within the UK more independence and a different arrangement on the vote, which Corbyn ignored.
The day that Dugdale made this announcement is also the day that London Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan was set to speak at the conference. Ahead of the conference, Khan posted his comments on his Twitter feed where he very clearly made the argument that “There’s no difference between those who would try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who would try to divide us on the basis of our background, race, or religion.” Khan did soften the language of this section during the live speech to say he wasn’t calling the SNP or anyone who supported independence racist, but that it was divisive. Unfortunately, for Khan, his seemingly more genuine reaction to the independence debate was already out there for everyone to see.
Not surprisingly to a party and a nation that prides itself on its inclusiveness (e.g., 4 of the 6 major party leaders in Scotland are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, the SNP boasts an ethnically diverse group of MPs and MSPs, and Scotland elected the first Muslim MP in the UK), this was a wee bit offensive. Additionally, the sentiment is off-base and doesn’t reflect the nature of the argument for independence, which is largely grounded for most Scots in issues relating to self-rule and democratic representation in the UK.
What I expected to see the next morning on the Sunday morning political talk shows was a bit of discussion about this situation — when a major political leader of one party calls a movement racist, it would logically follow that it could be interesting to political journalists, particularly on a Sunday when the Labour party itself was getting a lot of coverage for the results of the by-elections. Yet, commentary was silent on the Marr show, Preston on Sunday, and Sophy Ridge on Sunday. In fact, we had to wait until 11:15 for Andrew Neil’s conversation with Kezia Dugdale on the Sunday Politics to hear anything about it. The Sunday Politics was the only hour of television that seemed to make any meaningful reference (outside of Scotland) to this seemingly major political story. We even waded through the Monday morning breakfast television and nightly news to see if it was picked up. And it wasn’t. Fortunately, newspapers were talking about it and social media were talking about it.
A near television blackout in England and Wales about a subject that is of national (as in the UK) importance involving an English politician’s inappropriate characterization of the independence debate is shocking. While it may tell us a lot about the challenged relationship between Scottish and British politics, it also tells us a lot about the media and the agenda setting function of media. In its simplest terms Agenda Setting Theory suggests that the media may not tell us what to think, but they certainly tell us what to think about. In this case, the national British television media has clearly made an editorial decision not to tell people about Sadiq Khan, the controversy, or its implications.
We’ll leave the conjecture about why this would occur to social media debates, but the fact that it clearly did occur should concern most people as we still get the majority of our news from television. Certainly, trends are shifting online, but that’s only if we look for particular topics. Television news — whether it’s a full hour program or just periodic updates is vital to an informed public. If the news outlets are collectively making editorial choices about topics of importance, then we cannot say that we are informed.
So, is agenda setting the same thing as fake news? Could Donald Trump have a fair point in his criticism of the news media (you have no idea how much that pains me to type)? By choosing to cover or not cover a topic, the media are guiding public interest and public concern about different topics. This isn’t new — this is what the media is supposed to do; however, in these editorial choices the media also has the opportunity to over amplify some issues and potentially shift public sentiment in a national debate by under-covering others. The documentary The Corporation talked about the influence of commercial interests in media coverage of controversial organizations and issues, but in the UK we are supposed to have the BBC — a public corporation with the remit of serving everyone’s interests. And to be fair to them, while they did cover the topic in one program on the Sunday morning, it couldn’t be argued that they’ve amplified the importance of the issue.
Thus, in coming back to my question — is agenda setting the same thing as fake news? I’m not sure whether I’m comfortable saying definitively yes at this point, but I would argue that clear examples of agenda setting like this means that the television news media is not doing its job adequately. It’s also very possible that it is misleading people about the nature of the independence debate (as in this example) and warrants more investigation into other important and controversial issues. Certainly in the recent Brexit debate the conversation about Brexit and its implications was poorly debated. In the US presidential election, Hillary Rodham Clinton was already inaugurated in the media’s view when President Trump won the electoral college vote. If it’s not fake, then we can say that the media isn’t serving our interests particularly well.