Fake News Isn't New: Researching Its History with NYPL's E-Resources

By Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian
August 23, 2017

Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, December 4, 1890

The term "fake news" may be receiving a lot of attention lately, but it is by no means new or unique to this day and age. Fake news holds a special place in America's journalistic history. It is easy to forget that before the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, social media, and even the common use of the telephone, news traveled very slowly. Considering how long it took information to get from point A to point B, newspapers often found it preferable to print stories before receiving  all of the facts to get the scoop on their competitors. Take a look at a couple of examples:

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the majority of the passengers were saved from the Titanic.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 15, 1912

Or when The New York Herald mistakenly wrote that the Union Army won the first Battle of Bull Run.

The New York Herald, July 22, 1861

These examples can arguably fall into the category of "when newspapers got it wrong" and not necessarily "fake news." But history certainly has its examples of news sources purposefully printing false stories. One example from the article, Fake News Has Long Held a Role in American History, is the "contentious election of 1800." To prevent people from voting for Thomas Jefferson many Federalist newspapers wrote stories claiming he was dead.

Albany Gazette, July 7, 1800

Looking back, political elections appear to cause a spike in the claims of fake news. Interestingly enough, the same newspaper that falsely reported the outcome of the Titanic, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, blasts another newspaper for publishing fake election results in 1896.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 6, 1896

History has also proven that sometimes fake news can be quite dangerous. In 1904, journalist Melville Stone claimed that the press of London sent a fake news dispatch to Japan, which served as the catalyst for the Russian-Japanese war.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 26, 1904

Although newspapers—for example The New York Times—began to push for more accurate reporting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, fake news apparently became such a problem that a bill was introduced in 1916 outlawing rumors and false reports regarding "international relations with the United States" in any type of publication.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 9. 1916

Fake news during the First World War may have been so problematic that a bill was introduced in Congress, but World War II showed how fake news could actually be used as a weapon. As reported in the Austin American in 1944, Nazis were providing American POWs with weekly newspapers, claiming the papers were a way to keep them abreast of world events. But, as the author claims, they were actually Nazi propaganda.

The Austin American, August 13, 1944

Fortunately for us, in today's world journalists and writers can be updated on world happenings at a moment's notice. That doesn't eliminate the possibility for errors and bias, however.  So, take a look at this great guide from The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions so you can spot fake news when you see it.

image with tips on avoiding

(based on FactCheck.org’s 2016 article How to Spot Fake News)

And for further ideas on the subject, listen to this NYPL podcast featuring Paul Krugman.

This blog post was researched entirely using NYPL's electronic resources. With more than 500 online research options available, many accessible from home with a library card, we challenge you to go beyond the search engine and dig deeper online with NYPL. 


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