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All Places > The Communication COMMunity > Blog > Author: Ernest Wiggins

As insults go, “fake news” has not yet reached the point of vacuity of, say, “your mother wears army boots.” Because of its excessive and less-than-strategic usage, it is edging into cliché territory. That is a knife that, though dulling, cuts both ways. That it’s being used to the point of triteness means that many are comfortable slinging that particular bit of slander about.

This former journalist repudiates the ease with which the phrase is used to denounce or discredit critical or unflattering reportage. That the term is inelegant is a bit beside the point, I think, because those who are inclined to reach for it are not hunting for le mot juste. They are most likely scooping up verbalisms that they imagine are more cutting than cunning.


Peers in classrooms and newsrooms have asked me on many occasions to weigh in on what “fake news” means and how to respond to or guard against it. My response has most often been that responsible reporting is its own defense. Bluster won’t quiet a bully whose purpose is to cow and not correct so I hardly ever broach the matter of silencing a crank. Dotting I’s and Crossing T’s, eschewing cut corners and holding firm on never publishing supposition or rumor is the truest armor of a news reporter.

I have, however, given more thought on ways to help news consumers better identify reportage that falls short of traditional journalistic standards either because of incompetence or fraudulence. I call them the Three C’s of Fake News:

Content. News consumers should first examine the content of the article or report. Consider these questions: What information is being shared and is the information attributed to a source that is named. If the source is unnamed, is it clear why the source is not being named – that is, is it clear to you what is at stake by revealing this information – termination of employment, bodily harm? Does the threat seem reasonable based on the nature of the information?

If the information is challenging previous reports or popular thinking about some issue, is there evidence being offered as support or is the challenge more a matter of perception or viewpoint? Ask yourself why you should abandon what you have believed was true about the matter for something that is not demonstrably or verifiably true.

Additionally, you should ask if other sources have reported similar findings or if the information being shared is an “exclusive.” Exclusives can indeed result from the industry and resourcefulness of a news organization, or it can be information that was dressed and planted – or leaked -- with the hopes it of passing inspection, especially when deadlines are looming or it’s a slow news day. Much mischief finds its way into the news hole that way.

Construction. News consumers should also consider the news’ construction because clues to fraudulence might be found in its crafting. Consumers might consider if the article or report focuses on the authenticity or truthfulness of its information by citing sources by name, attributing all facts and opinions and letting what is disclosed speak for itself.

However, if the article is crafted around innuendos and suppositions and masks facts in inferences and hedges conclusions, red flags should go up. These constructions are often marked by language like “believe,” “think,” or “feel” to refer to sources other than the writer. The article might contain large sections of unattributed information, leaving readers to wonder whose perspective or viewpoint is being represented. This could be a sign of fictionalization.

News consumers can gauge the authenticity of a report by the number of times the writer uses the construction “source + said,” as in “Mayor Brown said on Monday ….” Reports that are thoroughly attributed and transparent are much less likely to be hawking fakery. Verification and corroboration are the pillars of responsible journalism. Articles that include personal experiences for which there were no other witnesses and thus cannot be verified are not necessarily fake; they should be weighed differently and the information assessed with the understanding it is the speaker’s account. Articles that refer to other reports should include citations or working links to the source material. Examining the linked material for political or promotional affiliations would be wise.

Common Sense. And, finally, readers and viewers should consume news with healthy portions of common sense. Most simply put, news consumers should ask if the report makes sense based on common knowledge, previous reporting or even their personal experiences. Do some events seem too good, too appropriate or too convenient to be true?Just because an article does not make sense or smells funny does not necessarily mean the item is fake; it does mean one should handle the information with caution and scrub it using the guidelines above.

If, in the end, the article writer’s position seems to be more combative or confrontational than informative, then the news consumer is likely not dining on news or at the very least competent reporting. It might be propaganda. And, as we all know, propaganda was “fake news” before fake news was cool.


That ubiquitous rhetorical query “know what I’m sayin’”? – which actually shifts the real work of comprehension from the speaker to the listener – has become a motto for too many of the young people whose work I grade. Along with hours devoted to citing comma faults, run-ons and wacky elliptical sentence structures, I spend a great deal of time wandering through the thickets of convolution, imprecision and excess that are growing in my students’ heads. Exchanges with colleagues in communications and other disciplines indicate that, as I suspected, I am not alone. Is it just that K-12 educational priorities don’t appear to be articulating with post-secondary approaches and expectations? Is there also a cultural shift among young people underway? Is intuitionreplacing explication? The writing of my young charges is plagued with wordiness and disorganization.




America’s third president is attached to the quote “The most valuable of talents is never using two words when one will do.” The pithiness of this remark models Jefferson’s stated principle, which might also be rendered, “say what you mean with precision and dispatch.”  


My students’ overwrought renderings might point to a lack of proficiency or imprecision in word choices. But I feel it is more complicated than substituting “rapidly” for “very fast” or “because” for the dreaded prolixity of “due to the fact that.” All of these are encoding choices that all writers wrestle with.


I suspect my students’ problems are also rooted in idea formation, the step that precedes encoding in the familiar simple communication model. Students struggle with written expression partly because they are inexperienced wordsmiths but most often because they’re not sure what they want to say.


Sometimes while reading responses to prompts, I feel as though I’d walked in on a student mid-cogitation, before the idea had set and settled.


“What is going on here?”


My markings tend to be less about “correcting” structural faults and more about “coaxing” or “teasing” out the passage’s purpose. Rather than jot “this is what you might say ....” on a section made muddy by verbosity, I highlight or circle the passage (I still prefer pen and paper grading) and insert in the margin, “What is it you’re saying here?” or “Rethink this section. Your point gets lost.” Thus putting the responsibility of comprehension where it belongs -- on the writer.


I often direct students back to their thesis statement – provided one has been crafted – and ask how the highlighted passage relates to what the statement promises. Does it add a dimension, elaborate on an earlier point, support an argument? In conferences student frequently admit they’re unsure.


“So why write so much?”


“I’m trying to meet the assignment word count” was too often the response.


An idea without substance or concreteness is easily lost in the woods, I’ll say. Certainty can hack through acres of wordy brush. “Go back and think some more.”




I frequently find myself following my student’s meandering prose into a thicket so dense I have difficulty determining where I am or how I came to be where I was. Lost.


Occasionally the brush has been made thick by compound, complex and compound-complex sentences that are overly burdened with subpoints, caveats, asides and parentheticals that don’t deepen the argument or expand the point. They simply radiate without clear direction or inclination. They are, as the kids say, “just some random stuff.”


Outlines are not an absolute cure for such disorganization – having an idea with layers that merit exploration is the true cure – but charting a course before pushing off from shore surely can’t be a bad idea if one intends to do more than just paddle around, if one intends to actually go from point A to point D.


Aside from forcing a sequencing onto ideas, outlining, to my mind, helps the writer-thinker determine if the trip is, indeed, worth taking. If, in fact, point A is substantively different from points B, C and D.  If there are no identifiable or palpable distinctions between the points then the journey would be “pointless.”


If, on the other hand, these points are related but different, and markedly so, then an outline would be useful in laying out the comparison, the pros and cons, the chronology, the evolution or the flow. That is, an outline would be a useful map from thesis statement to conclusion.


No, you can’t have “good writing” without “good mechanics.” But, more fundamentally, you can’t have “writing” without “thinking,” for as celebrated author David McCollough says, “Writing isthinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard.”  (My emphasis.) If our students are reminded of this and are coached through the fog of their hazy thinking they might actually find their writing more productive and enjoyable.


Know what I’m sayin’?

By Ernest L. Wiggins


Though a journalist by trade, I developed an abiding interest in persuasive communication during graduate school.  I have formally studied the intersection of media messages, group identity and social justice, focusing most of my attention on advertising. I routinely teach a course in mass media criticism, and 1/3 of class time involves the close reading of commercial advertising and cause / idea promotions. I am constantly searching for material that reflects contemporary popular culture. I recently discovered sexuality and gender roles front and center in ad campaigns from around the globe and not just as subjects of promotion. We are finding them as framing devices to convey other messages. For example:


Service with Pride

Volt, Sweden’s print campaign sponsored by the Swedish Armed Forces for the 2018 EuroPride festival in Stockholm, features separate male and female models dressed in battle fatigues and gear, sans helmets, applying rainbow-colored camouflage paint to their faces. They are standing in front of a wooden fence or scaling wall, suggesting they are preparing for training.  The copy in English reads: “We don’t always march straight. But no matter where or when we march, we always stand up for your right to live the way you want with whoever you want. Read more about how we work to protect freedom and the right to choose the way we live at”



The ad’s messaging works on several levels. Most obviously it is reminding viewers that male and female members of the LGBTQ community (those not marching “straight) serve in combat roles in the military. The copy also places personal liberty at the center of Sweden’s national identity and as part of the military’s defense mission. On another level, the campaign also serves as a recruitment tool targeting the LGBTQ community, particularly those skeptical of the army’s support. That the soldiers are shown applying the paint rather than posed with the paint already applied suggests individual agency, openness and decisiveness. This small motion challenges the notion of hiding among the ranks. Additionally, both models are facing the camera, eyes locked on the viewer, their bodies open, all of which suggests boldness and courage.  These are familiar themes at Pride Festivals around the world.



The Havas agency’s E45 skin cream 30-second spot features British Olympic champion turned professional boxer Nicola Adams sporting her trademark partially shaved head, what might be described as gender-nonconforming outfits and athletic apparel.  She is shown engaging in her training regimen in various international locales as her voice-over says: “In my life, I never like to sit still. All the traveling, the training, the hard work, everything I do, it takes a toll on my skin. Some days it needs a little bit more. New E45 rich. It’s everything my skin needs. Just straight-up skin care.”



Adams, who publicly identifies as bisexual, is an LGBTQ icon in Great Britain. As a celebrated face and national treasure, Adams lends substantial gravitas to the endorsement of a product that is not targeted at the LGBTQ community, people of color nor women. Casting Adams as spokesperson acknowledges, yes, her renown but also her substantial appeal across a spectrum of potential consumers.  Additionally, Adams delivers the message that hard work and self-care are companions, challenging the perception among some that female athletes are indifferent to their appearance outside of the arena or the ring.


Playing with Clichés




MullenLowe’s series of spots for Aruba Tourism Authority turns around the male-centric marriage proposal trope – and acknowledges that it’s doing so -- to cut through viewers’ gender-role expectations in service of a unique promotion. In each 60-second ad, a male-female couple in their early to mid-30s is show vacationing together – strolling along a beach, dining al fresco, sunning on a sailboat. The woman tells her companion she has enjoyed their time and wants to take their relationship to the next level. She presents a boxed ring (a solid band) and presents it to her companion, whose face then, in slow motion, bursts into a broad smile and tears. They embrace and the moment dissolves into a love weepy song and the pitch. “Let’s keep the cliché of proposing in front of the sea. Let’s end the cliché of men doing it. Win a trip to Aruba to propose to your boyfriend.”



While being played for laughs, and targeting women viewers, the ad, commendably, asks audience members to consider the social convention at the heart of the commercial’s narrative: Why does the man have to be the one to propose? But, not so commendably, in one instance the campaign overplays the man’s reaction to the point of grotesquerie (see above), leaving viewers to wonder if this is how the ad creator views a woman’s response – as ridiculous. In each of the spots, the female character includes in her build-up to the presentation of the ring a status report of a relationship that might appear static– we’ve lived together for five and half years,we’ve been together for seven and half,you can’t live with your parents anymore. Again, if the ad messenger is turning around familiar scenarios, then the messenger is suggesting that marriages liberate adult women from their parents. While it is likely that this accurately represents the reality for at least some women in the targeted audience, the commercials’ narratives would indicate the ideal customers for this promotion have status and means and are not lodging with Mom and Dad.


These campaigns take refreshing views of sexuality and gender roles and put them to use in selling products and / or ideas while challenging viewers’ conventional notions and expectations.  Each strikes me as affirming (perhaps even celebrating) the richness of human diversity.