Consumers aren’t the only ones concerned about fake news these days. The folks who actually report the news are admitting this issue is increasingly troublesome, too. Consider the findings of a poll conducted by Cision, published in its 2017 Global Social Journalism Study. Among journalist respondents:
- 51% believe fake news is a serious problem in their area of reporting;
- fake news is regarded as a serious problem in news/politics/current affairs reporting by 62%, in lifestyle/fashion/sports/entertainment/culture reporting by 46%, and in “other” journalism areas by 51%;
- fake news is a serious problem in their area of journalism for 52% of 46- to 64-year-olds, 49% of 28- to 45-year-olds, and 63% of 18- to 27-year-olds;
- 77% fear that social media is encouraging journalists to concentrate on speed over accurate reporting and analysis.
Chris Lynch, Cision’s chief marketing officer, says he’s not surprised by many of these findings. “I think a lot of journalists are feeling frustrated about being lumped in with all the garbage content being put out there, especially those who are doing the right thing by tracking down real stories, checking their facts, and trying to put out quality journalism,” says Lynch.
Part of the problem, he adds, is the race to be first with a scoop and get information up fast: “Many journalists feel that social media is harming the level of effort they’re able to put into fact checking and making sure they’re getting a solid story.”
Another challenge is that the real or perceived role of journalists has changed, says Paul Niwa, former journalist and associate professor and assistant dean of the School of Communication at Emerson College. “In the past, journalists have been the filter for what is more honest and they took their jobs very seriously in trying to frame information in a truthful manner. But today, we don’t have journalists as filters – now, the average consumer citizen has to do that filtering themselves,” Niwa says.
Mandy Jenkins, head of news at Storyful, however, believes fake news is no more problematic today than it was in the past. “While there are likely more misinformation or disinformation sites out there now than ever before, this isn’t the first time in even recent history that fake news has driven public opinion in news cycles,” says Jenkins. “In 2014, misinformation and exaggeration drove a national near hysteria in the United States about the spread of the Ebola virus. In 2013, $130 billion in stock value disappeared in a matter of minutes following an erroneous Tweet from the Associated Press about an explosion at the White House that injured Barack Obama. And in the late 1990s, there was politically motivated propaganda being spread about the suicide of Vince Foster.”
Fortunately, new industry programs are underway to help improve trust in journalism and increase news engagement, including a $2.5 million initiative by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. Social media platforms are also fighting back against propaganda, with Facebook recently announcing that it will block Pages that disseminate fake news from running ads on the site, among other measures. Google is also fighting back against fake news, but is raising the ire of many sites that say their traffic is being impacted.
To help combat fake news and restore public trust in the integrity of journalism, experts recommend a variety of tactics. “Aim to be a steward over the public forum that will help citizens find common ground and take collective action in their communities,” says Niwa. “I suggest rereading the U.S. Constitution. The reason why the press is the only industry mentioned is because it’s supposed to be engaging and helping citizens through conversation and be a vibrant forum of ideas were information can be checked.”
Be careful about trying to debunk everything with quick corrections or ignoring false reports altogether, cautions Jenkins. “Choose your battles wisely, and invest more in explaining the origins of a false claim,” she says. “If we truly want to get audiences to stop falling for false stories, we have to teach them how it comes about, how it spreads, who’s behind it, and how they can avoid it in the future. The press also has to prove it’s better than the propaganda suggests and hold themselves to higher standards of verification, analysis, accuracy, privacy and authenticity.”
Lynch says that, while there will always be a need for anonymous sources, “journalists should work harder to avoid a lot of anonymous or not-for-attribution sources. In this climate, it feeds the narrative of ‘well, anybody could’ve said that.’”
Additionally, journalists need to get more involved in the communities they serve.
“Local newspapers should make sure that school districts in their coverage area have great journalism programs,” says Niwa. “We have to educate citizens on how to be good news consumers in this kind of media environment.”