There are few commonly used expressions that make me cringe as reflexively as the term “fake news.” Coined initially as a descriptor for the droves of fabricated news stories that were planted on Facebook by propagandists leading up to the 2016 American election, the term has since been co-opted by Trump’s right-wing communications machine as a catch-all pejorative to discredit any media, credible or otherwise, that is the slightest bit critical of him.
Needless to say, this sets an incredibly dangerous precedent. Historically speaking, a free press has always been the most effective tool for citizens in a democracy to curb the power of the executive branch, but now that Trump has effectively delegitimized this tool in the eyes of millions of Americans, he can do whatever he wishes to without being held accountable.
Unfortunately, the harsh truth is that the media is not blameless in this current predicament. Slashed budgets, in combination with an existential need to attract more eyes than ever before in an increasingly fractured publishing landscape, have forced media companies to cut corners on editorial standards, and this has not gone unnoticed by its consumers. In other words, it would not have been so easy for Trump to delegitimize the media if the media hadn’t already done such an effective job of delegitimizing itself.
I was thinking about how pervasive this problem has grown last week, as I took stock of the reports circulating all over Twitter, stating that JAY-Z had set up a $15 million dollar trust fund for Nipsey Hussle’s children. Although these reports were unfounded, a casual Twitter user would have been unable to draw this distinction, as thousands of people—not to mention: actual media outlets—were sharing this news as if it was factual.
Granted, it only took until the next morning for a qualified journalist to dispel the rumors by reaching out to Roc Nation for confirmation, but by this point, the damage had been done. Imagine how JAY-Z must have felt waking up to the news that thousands of people now expected him to give away $15 million dollars. Worse yet, imagine if a member of Nipsey Hussle’s extended family were to have seen this news. Admittedly, the stakes of fake news aren’t as high in hip-hop as they are in the political sphere, but the escalation of stories like these aren’t without their consequences, either.
A similarly baseless story made the rounds back in January when many credible media outlets began reporting that Frank Ocean’s visual album, Endless, would finally be released on digital streaming platforms. Fans of Ocean rejoiced at this news, thrilled that they’d finally be able to listen to this album in a format that was slightly more convenient than a 45-minute long video on Apple Music. They were understandably less thrilled when they found out that this news was fabricated. Cumulatively, these reports circulated for over a week, before the artist was forced to dispel them personally by writing the words “Fake News”—rather fittingly—in an Instagram comment.
Compared to the trust fund story, it may be tempting to look at this latter anecdote as a victimless prank, but in doing so, you’d be underestimating the cumulative power of misinformation. Fake news reports like the former are able to gain traction precisely because fake news reports like the latter did so previously. Over time, these reports create a fundamental feeling of distrust towards the media outlets that circulate them. Skeptical consumers will see a story posted on a particular publication and, even if they’re 95 percent certain it’s accurate, they’ll retain a sliver of doubt based on that publication’s previous track record of spreading false information.
As this has begun to happen more frequently, audiences have ceased to view hip-hop publications as the watchdogs of truth they once were, and have started to get their news from alternate sources. From their perspective, it’s not hard to see why they might make this transition. If they can’t be sure that XXL, HipHopDX, or HotNewHipHop are sharing factual information, then they might as well get their news from anywhere. Yet, at least these publications have some journalistic oversight. I’m not sure I can say the same for “All Viral Access Media,” a YouTube channel that uploaded a video about the aforementioned trust fund story that racked up 57,000 views.
It’s odd to think that YouTube videos like this are now the competition for decades-old publications. Yet, looking at the situation objectively, it’s hard to deny that they’re vying for the same audience. I wonder if pressure to compete with these sensationalist channels is what motivated The Source, once known as the most well-regarded hip-hop publication on the planet, to make the extremely misguided decision to post a graphic video of Nipsey Hussle’s murder to its website and then to share the post on social media.
I doubt the connection was this direct, but I imagine it’s this precise need to compete in a fraught media climate that has shaped the publication’s editorial ethos over time. At some point, audiences stopped regarding The Source as a beacon of journalistic integrity, so The Source stopped feeling the pressure to be a beacon of journalistic integrity. Instead, they decided to pivot to a brand of editorial shamelessness and keep their head above water that way.
It’s a treacherous time in hip-hop media—media, period—and most publications are spread far too thin to sustain robust fact-checking and ethics departments. Yet, as far as I can tell, letting these circumstances dictate content standards hasn’t exactly been an effective solution to this problem, either. Sure, a publication might get thousands of page views in the short term by running an unverified news story, but what good does this do if it undermines the credibility of their company brand and the entire profession in the long run?
As hip-hop continues to be the most influential art form in the world, it will remain wrapped up with immense cultural power. At some point or another, we will have to check this power—as is the case with our political system. When that time arrives, I just hope there’s a media outlet with enough credibility left to do so.