Only a few years ago, the term "fake news" held no place in the public consciousness.
Today, it is the starting point for most discussions of the news media and the go-to denunciation for any news report that seems to contradict one's personal world view.
Therein lies a great danger. For, the term can mean almost whatever the person using it or hearing it wants it to mean.
Is it news based entirely on a lie? Is it news that contains only selected portions of the truth? Is it news fashioned to shape a particular social or political point of view? True stories that don't deserve the prominence they are given? Untrue stories surreptitiously launched into the sea of social media to promote a conspiracy narrative preying on fear and prejudice?
Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes -- and probably as many more yeses as there are ways to interpret stories and people to interpret them. That is the very heart of the threat: When any emotional label can mean whatever a speaker wants it to mean, it ultimately means nothing. And when it is used to encourage blind distrust of foundational values, it leads to the notion that all institutions deserve equal respect and any institution can merit trust.
That mentality is the prelude to tyranny and to a world in which relevance, perspective, value and facts themselves are determined not by individuals but by whoever happens to capture the public spotlight at a given moment.
The threat of such a world, as we said in a series of editorials a year ago and repeat today, must be looked full in the face and decisively engaged.
Fortunately, citizens who earnestly value truth and open debate are becoming increasingly aware of what is meant when people say "facts matter." And, a host of resources -- including nonpartisan online fact checkers like snopes.com, truthorfiction.com and politifact.com, detailed initiatives like the News Literacy Project and individual efforts like the "All Generalizations Are False" blog are providing new tools for monitoring the reliability of what we read, see and hear.
As we come to the close of 2017, the political outlook has evolved from a year ago. In some ways, the picture is worse.
In some ways, there are signs of growing respect for the power of information and the precedence of trust. The importance of that respect to a democratic society cannot be overstated. To help foster it, we intend to renew and expand the conversation over the days ahead. We again hope you'll join us and share the discussion.
Facts matter. Support a free press.