“It’s fake news!” – Or how reality is different to everyone

Somehow, everybody seems to make fun of Donald Trump these days. Will he Make America Great Again? Many people would probably disagree. Is he going to make the Mexicans pay for the wall? This also seems highly unlikely. Do media generate “fake news”? Certainly not. Or do they?

The thing is: Trump might actually have a point. We’re not saying that there is fake news all around you and that you shouldn’t believe anyone, but compare the following extracts from news articles in the Guardian and the Telegraph about an incident during a demonstration against tuition fees in Great Britain:

  1. “Activists who had masked their faces with scarves traded punches with the police […].” (Guardian, November 10th, 2010)
  2. “A number of police officers were injured after they came under attack from youths, some wearing scarves to hide their faces amid scenes of chaos.” (Telegraph, November 10th, 2010)

So which version is correct? Did both sides actively exchange punches as implied in the first example? Or did the police officers just stand there passively until they were attacked by the activists as suggested in the second example? The truth probably lies somewhere in between. 

These examples (and perhaps even your own attempts to describe events from the past) show how reality may be perceived and reproduced differently. Even the media, which are supposed to provide their audience with true information about an event, seem to report about it in different ways. But are they doing it on purpose? And if so, for which purpose?

That’s exactly what linguists are trying to find out in the research area of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). More specifically, they are trying to examine how reality may be shaped differently through language, and how this shaping – or framing – of reality is connected to the author’s ideology – his or her beliefs, values, and ideals. In other words, CDA focuses on studying ideological versions of reality (for more information on CDA read this previous LAMA post).

So in order to find out more about the authors’ beliefs, values, and ideals in the two examples, we have to look at language. One of the many differences in these extracts is the verb form used to describe the act of violence between the activists and the police officers.

In the first example, the author uses what is called a reciprocal verb form, meaning that the verb (“to trade”) implies that both sides are actively participating in an action of exchanging something. The way the author phrases this incident tells us that both the activists and the police were doing the punching. In contrast, a transactive verb form is used in the second example, in which the verb (“to attack”) implies that only one side is performing a violent action, whereas the other side is rather passive, meaning that the attack was initiated by the youths only.

Even though we don’t know which of the verb forms describes this incident most accurately, we do know that the authors perceived this event differently. More importantly, we know that reality is also phrased differently when being reported. You have certainly made similar experiences: how often did it happen that you and your friend try to tell the same story, but disagree on some details? In most cases we mix reality with our beliefs, values, and ideals. And even though this can sometimes be used deliberately to falsify information, it primarily shows that we are all complex human beings who to some extent are all different in nature.

So even if you make fun of Trump in the future, remember that he has a point. Trump may have never heard about CDA – but now you have. It is always easy to discredit someone or something by calling it ‘fake’. So the next time you stumble across the term ‘fake news’ don’t just roll your eyes but maybe think about it for a second. While there is surely always the possibility of people trying to diminish the media’s influence or reliability by calling it fake, also try to look at it from another perspective as well. Which details of this particular story or event and which deliberate phrasings might have been the result of a certain perception and led to a particular presentation of reality? And once you have done that you might even spend some more time appreciating how many different realities language can actually construct.


Picture Credits:

Featured image: “Fake News” by GDJ (Pixabay CCO)

Picture 1: “Make America great again” by geralt (Pixabay CCO)

Picture 2: “Laptop” by pixel2013 (Pixabay CCO)



The authors are first-year M.A. students of Applied Linguistics at Bonn University.

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