Fake News & the Media | Collection Development

Fake news has deep roots in American politics and journalism. Those roots blossomed into an unprecedented distortion of the facts during the 2016 presidential election. The fact-checking website PolitiFact named “fake news” as the 2016 winner of the Lie of the Year, and Oxford Dictionaries designated “post-truth” as its 2016 Word of the Year. In a world of fake news, where there is no agreement on the basic facts, it is almost impossible to engage in constructive political discourse.

While the current media ecosystem makes it easy to disseminate misinformation and wild conspiracy theories without rebuttal, earlier generations had their own challenges with verifying news. America has a long tradition of hoaxes and partisan news coverage. In the 1790s, political candidates created their own newspapers to further their agendas. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had rival newspapers that specialized in innuendo, sex scandals, and character assassination. By the end of his second term, in 1807, Jefferson lamented, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” It was a problem for which he bore some responsibility.

The birth of the penny presses in the 1830s made news­papers available to mass audiences in a wildly competitive marketplace. The motive to deceive the public was based more on a commercial interest in gaining readers than on political manipulation. Sensational news stories disseminated some of the most creative media hoaxes in American history. A series on life on the moon in New York’s Sun in 1835 detailed the moon’s flora and fauna, including purported “man-bats.” It was intended as a satire on those who valued science over religion, but many readers were taken in by it.


The widespread adoption of radio by the American public in the 1930s provided fresh opportunities for the circulation of news and opinion. The coverage of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932 was one of the first publicly shared news experiences. In one of the best-known deceptions, ­Orson Welles used a radio news broadcast to deliver “War of the Worlds” on Halloween 1938. Radio also embraced the talk show format early on; in the 1930s, millions of listeners tuned in to hear the political views of controversial Catholic priest Charles Coughlin. By the 1990s, a new generation of political talk radio shows, pioneered by Rush Limbaugh, began to appear and attract large audiences, changing the way politics is understood and discussed.

This type of advocacy journalism has exploded with the advent of the Internet, cable television news, and social media. Fox News went live in 1996, positioning itself as an alternative to the “left-leaning news” of mainstream media. Competing cable news stations took up the gauntlet. Social media added to the cacophony of perspectives, further blurring the distinction between fact and opinion. The public is left to sort through numerous narratives, some based on a grain of truth, while others are outright falsehoods.

Polls indicate that the public distrusts both politicians and the media, with the distrust of mainstream news media at an all-time high. A May 2017 Pew Research study showed that only about one-fifth of adults believe the national news media do a very good job. Another Pew report in 2015 found that “among Millennials, Facebook is the most common source for news about government and politics.” With the proliferation of news outlets, journalists no longer control the information presented. Determining what is true becomes the responsibility of the consumer.

Librarians and libraries can offer a wide range of resources to assist the public in navigating a world awash in fake news. Well-curated collections provide trustworthy sources to counter it. Programs and books on information literacy help students and members of the public develop needed skills to question and select appropriate sources. Books on the history and social context of the media offer a deeper understanding of the contemporary news environment. Novels shed light on the consequences of fake news in an entertaining format. Fact-checking websites provide a way to verify information.

Given the ongoing public debate and discussion of fake news, this is likely to be an area for collection development librarians to monitor closely and also a topic that might merit programming consideration. The titles listed below offer both a contextual background for the problem and guides to action. Starred (redstar) titles are essential for most collections.

Judy Solberg had a 30-year career in public services in academic libraries, including responsibility for collection development in journalism and communications. Now retired, she is a dedicated library user based in the Sacramento, CA, area. She has reviewed books for LJ since 1992

Fake News: The Context

Goodman, Matthew. The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth Century New York. Basic. 2010. 360p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780465019007. pap. $19.99.

This entertaining account of the rise of the penny press and the sensational stories that attracted readers illustrates the willingness of people to believe the most outrageous things. (LJ 9/15/08)

redstarHedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Nation. 2010. 240p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781568586137. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780786749553.

Pulitzer prize–winning journalist Hedges argues that people want to hear less about reality as their economic and social conditions worsen. He describes television journalism as a farce and makes the case that in a culture that values illusion over reality, political leaders only need to ­appear honest.

Schwartz, A. Brad. Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. Farrar. 2016. 352p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780809031641. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780809031634.

In a detailed account of the making of the infamous radio broadcast and its after­math, Schwartz claims that the biggest panic was over the public’s new fear of the power of broadcasting to deceive. (LJ 3/15/15)

The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News. McFarland. 2011. 208p. ed. by Amarnath Amarasingam. index. ISBN 9780786458868. pap. $19.99.

Entertainment news shows draw large audiences. The ten essays in this collection explore their impact on traditional media and public opinion. While primarily written for an academic audience, the book may appeal to readers interested in news satire.

redstarYoung, Kevin. Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Graywolf. 2017. 480p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781555977917. $30; ebk. IS                                   BN 9781555979829.

Young, an award-winning poet and director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, explores the deep roots of hoaxing in entertainment, literature, journalism, sports, and public life. The final chapter touches on the current “post-fact” world and raises important questions about the possibility of shared truth. (LJ 9/15/17)

Understanding the News

redstarAtkins, Larry. Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias. Prometheus. 2016. 280p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781633881655. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781633881662.

Atkins, a journalism professor, presents a history of advocacy journalism and emphasizes the importance of being a savvy news consumer. He examines media bias on both sides of the spectrum, offering practical tips on identifying it.

redstarAttkisson, Sharyl. The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote. Harper. 2017. 304p. index. ISBN 9780062468161. $27.99; pap. ISBN 9780062468185. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062473783.

An investigative reporter explores how journalists are manipulated by political operatives who work behind the scenes to shape the images and stories presented to the public. News consumers are advised to question everything they read or see.

Gladstone, Brooke. The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic in Our Time. Workman. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9781523502387. pap. $8.95; ebk. ISBN 9781523502622.

The host of NPR’s On the Media explores the difference between fact and reality, arguing that the same set of facts can be interpreted in more than one way. She recommends engaging with people who think differently to broaden one’s ­perspective.

Kovach, Bill & Tom Rosenstiel. Blur: How To Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload. Bloomsbury. 2011. 240p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781608193011. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781608193028.

Breaking news stories are reported by all types of people before the facts are determined, and consumers are left to decide what is true. Media critics Kovach and Rosenstiel offer practical advice for analyzing journalistic content in this new media environment.

redstarKuypers, Jim A. Partisan Journalism: A History of Media Bias in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield. 2013. 306p. index. ISBN 9781442225930. $56; pap. ISBN 9781442252073. $34; ebk. ISBN 97814422259147.

Kuypers (communication, Virginia Tech) documents the colorful history of partisanship in journalism from the beginning of the nation through the 2012 election. In closing, he claims that the present-day competitive and partisan press promotes a clash of ideas that is beneficial to the public.

Novels: Facts from Fiction

Camerota, Alisyn. Amanda Wakes Up. Viking. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780399563997. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399564017.

This contemporary novel provides an entertaining window on television journalism. A morning news show anchor struggles with demands to be entertaining and get high ratings while covering politics. Camerota currently coanchors CNN’s New Day. (LJ 6/15/17)

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. Random. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780451465641. pap. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698152700.

Contemporary sales have risen for this newly relevant satire written in the 1930s. Lewis sounded the warning as Hitler came to power in Europe. In this cautionary tale, President Windrip works hard to manipulate and discredit the journalists covering him.

Orwell, George. 1984. Houghton Harcourt. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781328869333. $19.84; ebk. ISBN 9780547249643.

This is another classic that has experienced a recent surge in sales. In this dystopian tale, the protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth falsifying old news accounts. Some commentators have made connections between Orwell’s use of the terms newspeak and doublethink with the present-day promotion of alternative facts.

Waugh, Evelyn. Scoop. Little, Brown. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780316216364. $22.99; pap. ISBN 9780316216371. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316216388.

When Boot is sent off to cover a war in this comic novel, he is told how his reporting should proceed, with the instruction, “We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July.” Being the first to get or make the news is still a scoop.

Fact-Checking Sites


This project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by the president and top administration officials, as well as congressional and party leaders. The site accepts questions.


This nonpartisan fact-checking website strives to sort out the truth in American politics. It is managed by the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists. Its Truth-O-Meter rulings have six ratings, from True to Pants on Fire.


The site was founded to research urban legends and has grown into the oldest and largest fact-checking site on the Internet. A good resource for checking popular culture stories shared on the web.

Tools for News Consumers

redstarBartlett, Bruce. The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks. Ten Speed. 2017. 144p. index. ISBN 9780399581168. pap. $8.99; ebk. ISBN 978039958116.

This concise citizen’s guide, written by a Capitol Hill veteran and journalist, offers practical counsel on judging sources and using fact-checking sites. He promotes the library as a reliable source for ­information.

De Botton, Alain. The News: A User’s Manual. Vintage. 2014. 272p. photos. index. ISBN 9780307476838. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307911728.

Philosopher de Botton laments that we are “never ­really taught how to make sense of the torrent of news we face every day.” Examining archetypal news stories, he analyzes why certain stories attract audiences. He worries that the increasing personalization of news selection might be dangerous for the common good.

Johnson, John H. & Mike Gluck. Everydata: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day. Bibliomotion. 2016. 224p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781629561011. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781315230368.

Learning to understand data is an important component of media literacy, and this guide to everyday data is written for the layperson. It explains how to interpret the numbers and statistics often found in news and other consumer information.

redstarStebbins, Leslie F. Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth. Rowman & Littlefield. 2015. 204p. ISBN 9781442253926. $75; pap. ISBN 9781442253933. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781442253940.

Trained as a librarian, Stebbins puts forth an engaging manual for finding information that is appropriate for both general readers and as a text for students. She uses stories or “information adventures” to illustrate the best approaches to searching for high-quality sources.


The Developing Schedule

MAR Feminism
APR Income Inequality
MAY Sf Romance
JUN  Working/Service Animals
JUL  Making Media

To submit titles (new and/or backlist), contact Barbara Genco four to six months before issue dates listed above (email: bgenco@mediasourceinc.com)

SELF-eLearn More
SELF-e is an innovative collaboration between Library Journal and BiblioBoard® that enables authors and libraries to work together and expose notable self-published ebooks to voracious readers looking to discover something new. Finally, a simple and effective way to catalog and provide access to ebooks by local authors and build a community around indie writing!
Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind