The Washington Post published a false story, but it’s not fake news

It’s okay to criticize the newspaper for wrongly reporting that Russia hacked the U.S. power grid, just don’t confuse it with fake news.

Facade of the Washington Post’s former headquarters in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
Facade of the Washington Post’s former headquarters in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

On December 30, my phone flashed with a news alert that Russian hackers gained access to the United States’ power grid. The Washington Post broke a story saying that a Vermont utility found malware code previously associated with other Russian hacks, and that it was evidence of a breach in the U.S. electricity grid. But that last part—the most important piece of news in the story—was inaccurate, and the Post ran a correction: A computer at Vermont’s Burlington Electric was hacked and implanted with malicious code, but it wasn’t attached to the state’s power grid.

The damage was done, though. Despite the correction, the Post and its reporters responsible for the story found themselves embroiled in the ongoing debate over fake news and media distrust. Critics, including the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, seemingly equated the two, asserting that a false story from a known media organization is almost indistinguishable from—if not, just as dangerous as—news fabricated for clicks and ad dollars.

To Greenwald’s point, yes, reporters get things wrong sometimes, and many are familiar with the embarrassment and humiliation of running a correction or clarification as a result. The news industry was built on a set of standards that require facts be verified and corroborated, and a code of ethics, which stipulates inaccurate information be corrected swiftly and with a clear acknowledgement of the error. But as news organizations went digital and the pressure to be first intensified, errors became more common and policies about acknowledging corrections became lax, with many outlets often opting to update the text without much, if any, transparency.

There’s an important distinction, however, between flawed journalism and fake news: intent.

“In reference to the Washington Post story, or anytime you see a major error like that, there’s a breakdown in the editorial process,” said Lynn Walsh, the national president for the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization that advocates for accurate and ethical reporting. “For a journalist involved with that story, it’s not something you want to see,” because it harms the individual’s and organization’s reputation when information is published and turns out to be incorrect.

Journalists and media organizations have one job: to relay accurate information to the public. The public’s trust in that information has eroded over the last election cycle and in the years before, which has given rise to and accelerated because of fake news. But unlike fake news, where stories are either partially or wholly fabricated, the motive behind an inaccurate story like the Washington Post’s is still predicated on relaying facts. The reporters just failed to be factual.

“I can understand why someone would make that comparison and put them in the same bucket, because at the end of the day the information was incorrect,” said Walsh, who runs NBC San Diego’s investigative team.

But just as there is a material difference between a fender bender and a staged car collision, there is a clear separation between flawed reporting and fake reporting. Both situations cause damage, but where an inaccurate story is akin to rear-ending someone because the driver was texting, fake news is a “swoop and squat” car crash and rooted in deception even if it includes a kernel of truth.

Due to recent newsworthiness, the “fake news” label has come to describe factual content that people disagree with and — as with the Washington Post’s flub — inaccurate news stories. It’s a complicated and, for journalists, frustrating problem that comes at a time when media trust is very low — 32 percent, according to a Gallup poll — and the industry’s legitimacy is challenged at the uppermost levels of government.

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly criticized and restricted access to media outlets that published critical but accurate stories, dismissing them as “biased.” Since winning the election, Trump has openly questioned information from government intelligence agencies that suggest Russian hackers interfered with the U.S. election. President Barack Obama issued sanctions against Russia in light of the hacking intel, to which Trump retorted, “move on.”

So when an esteemed news organization publishes a major factual error or has a breakdown in the editorial process — a reporter unfamiliar with a topic area is put on a fast-breaking story, a name is misspelled, or an allegation isn’t verified — what was once an institution’s reputation-straining mistake becomes evidence of something bigger.

As the American Civil Liberties Union’s lead cyber security researcher Christopher Soghoian pointed out, any editorial failure blurs the line for readers.

The issue is further encumbered by media plagiarism scandals. Journalists entrusted with delivering the truth have been caught lying or fabricating stories: the New York Times’ infamous Jayson Blair, NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams, Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson, and the Intercept’s Juan Thompson, to name a few.

With those scandals, as well as the Washington Post’s recent error, public criticism is not only warranted, it’s vital to maintain journalistic integrity.

“There should be backlash if there’s incorrect information published. We need to work on being better,” Walsh said. “Instead of focusing on being first, focus on being accurate.”

It’s such accountability— as well as a track record of accurate reporting and running corrections—that separates legitimate news organizations from fake sites.

“Journalists I work with and talk to, they really are trying their best to give information that is unbiased and truthful,” Walsh said, adding that inaccurate reports, while inexcusable “are sort of one off cases.”

But while news institutions including the Post have a history of breaking major stories and investigations, today’s political climate makes it so that even a small lapse in editorial judgment can discredit good work in one word — “fake.” That means journalists will have to do more to earn and keep public trust by setting standards even higher and being transparent with their readers.

“Stick to the ethics,” Walsh said. “As journalists, we only have our reputation to live off of, so if [the public] stops trusting us as individuals or institutions…we no longer serve that purpose.”