Fake news surrounds us. To an extent, it always has: propaganda, misinformation and lies are as old as language itself. But the rise of technology, the power and influence wielded by the internet, by social media, has meant that fakery has become more sophisticated, more widespread and more damaging to trust in the media than ever before.
The concept of journalism is founded on truth and impartiality. But when those founding principles have perceivably been brought into disrepute, whether deserved or not, media companies and outlets must act.
The World Media Group kicked off its 2020 events calendar with a session looking at this subject, and asking: what are the implications of fake news, for journalism and advertising, and what can news organisations do to counter the public’s growing disaffection with the media?
The session was chaired by Sarah Thorpe, managing director, Europe at The New York Times, who kicked off proceedings asking panellists to try to define the sometimes nebulous term.
Fake news: nothing new
“Fake news has been in existence as long as news has been in existence, in very varying degrees whether through bias, opinion or downright manipulation of information,” said Phillipa Leighton-Jones, editorial director, innovation at The Wall Street Journal.
“What’s changed is the velocity and sophistication of the tools available, which is in many cases playing into an increasingly polarised political environment. [Fake news] could conceivably mean everything from the most sophisticated deep-fake to someone not being honest about where their information has come from in an otherwise respected newspaper.
For Anne McElvoy, senior editor and head of Economist Radio at The Economist, fake news boils down to motivation. “Fake news has to be about the intention to distort or deceive,” she said. “If that’s not the intention then it’s not fake news. We should also be aware that the media is capable of committing fake news without meaning to. It’s something we have to transparent about. What do we do when we screw up?”
Mary Wilkinson, head of editorial content at BBC Global News, cited a Reuters report from last year that “showed that in the UK alone, trust in news has dropped from 55% in 2015 to just 40% last year”.
“So I think as a reputable broadcaster, we need to do our utmost to ensure truth stands out from the crowd and that people know there are places to go to for accurate and impartial information.”
Hazel Baker, global head of UGC news gathering at Reuters, hates the term ‘fake news’. “It’s so broad, it’s ill-defined and tells you nothing,” she said. “It’s been used by politicians and members of the public. I think categorisation is really important when it comes to actually assessing problems and understanding. The broad categories in fake news are misinformation – the spreading of false information – and disinformation – the deliberate spreading of false information.”
Undermining advertiser trust
As a cultural malaise, fake news has worrying implications for brands and their relationship with media owners.
“The net impact is that often advertisers don’t know where to go,” said Leighton-Jones. “In some cases this has led to instances of ‘blacklisting’, where advertisers won’t place ads against key words such as ‘Trump’. It’s a crude measure.
“Overall, what that loss of confidence among advertisers could mean for media at large is less funding for quality journalism, which costs a lot of money to make.”
Wilkinson concurred. “I think it’s in the interests of advertisers where their ads are going to be,” she said. “Subscriptions are rapidly growing, but good quality journalism is still dependent on advertiser revenue. I would buy direct, you don’t always have to go via the advertising platforms.”
Reining in anti-social media
The degree of power and the influence wielded by social platforms is having a detrimental effect on reporting, according to Alex Wood, Europe editor at Forbes, who argued that journalism needed to retain its historically more considered approach to the gathering and dissemination of information.
“It’s about slowing down,” he said. “We’re becoming obsessed with the clicks – the race to get into Google News is a race to the bottom.”
It’s a point that resonated with all the panelists, the consensus being that greater regulation governing online platforms was of paramount importance.
Wood in particular welcomed this month’s news that Ofcom will be given greater powers over social media, which will force them to act over harmful or overtly erroneous content.
The “idea that they don’t have the same responsibilities as publishers” is a massive concern, he said. “When they have the capacity to change opinion and change the world, they have to abide by the same standards. The game is really up for platforms. This idea that they can pretend they don’t have the same responsibilities as a publisher is wildly dated. When you think of the capacity they have to influence opinion and to change the world, I think they have to behave in the same way, to the same standards.”
In the main, standards among news organisations are as high as they have ever been. But in order to combat public scepticism – and to reassure advertisers – communicating that fact has become crucial.
Accordingly, the BBC has a public-facing website that “covers everything from misinformation to disinformation, debunking rumours and theories doing the rounds on social media”, Wilkinson said.
The truth will out
Meanwhile, the broadcaster last year convened the Trusted News Summit. “We’re now working with a number of partners because no one publisher can do this on their own,” she said. “It includes the FT, Facebook, Google, Reuters, AFP, where we’re going to try and set up an early warning system because in certain situations, particularly in developing or new democracies, disinformation is actively dangerous.
“We’re trying to establish a framework where one publisher can alert everyone else and the tech platforms and hopefully nip things in the bud before they go completely viral.”
Wilkinson is optimistic about the future.
“On polarising subjects, there’ll always be people who believe what they want to believe. But there will be subjects where they will need to know the facts, and if those publications have a track record of being accurate and impartial, they will turn to those outlets. The antidote to all this is keep on doing very good journalism, explain your methods and when you make mistakes, admit them, and hopefully the truth will out.”
World Media Group
Photos: Jane Clipston