February 14, 2017 - by Peter Evans
There’s nothing new about fake news. Satirical media outlets such as The Onion have been around for a decade giving us a good laugh. But somewhere in the past 12 months, something changed for the worse. The wool that was being pulled over people’s eyes wasn’t so obvious anymore. Satire and bad humour were replaced by visceral accusations, conspiracies, and smear campaigns.
How did we get to this point, and what can be done to stem the tide?
A sure sign that we had a problem was a development that was apparent in the last presidential election. New voices were on the national scene branding our traditional media outlets as biased, and elitist. We saw the phrase “mainstream media” become a bigger part of the conversation.
Now we have to contend with “fake news.” Unlike traditional journalism fake news outlets deliberately spew wrong information. In an effort to get a story out, mistakes will happen. But in the world of fake news there is no retraction or correction of these mistakes — even when they are exposed as blatantly untrue. Further damage ensues when social media then acts as an enabler as fake news articles get amplified to millions of people, who are clicking away, feeding advertising revenues to these publishers. No matter what your political stripe or where you stood regarding the recent US election, fake news was rampant on both sides spreading false information, invoking anger, and deceiving the public.
More recently, a fresher version of fake news has emerged as “Alternate Facts.” A term made famous by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway as she defended the statements made by Press Secretary Sean Spicer who lectured and insisted that the crowd present for President Trump’s swearing-in was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” Not necessarily a lie when you factor in the ratings for the global television audience, but it was more of a merging of facts and other details to create an illusion of something that wasn’t actual, factual, or accurate. Even as I’m writing this here’s another developing story about another “alternative fact” — the soon to be infamous “Bowling Green Massacre” — which has now been debunked. It can be very painful to walk back such claims after journalists do their fact checking. That’s what real journalists do.
It seems that the whole nature of the game has changed almost overnight. Even the White House press gallery isn’t immune to these developments. This week’s Saturday Night Live sketch brilliantly sums up the aversive relationship that we’re seeing develop between the media and the new administration. (Note: For the record, the photo at the bottom is NOT a C-SPAN broadcast. It’s a comedy sketch. It did not really happen. This is NOT Sean Spicer in the photo below — it’s an actor portrayal).
Perhaps most ironic for me is how believable fake news can appear to be. A friend of mine, a former investigative journalist commented that “given the outright absurdity of the actual “real” news cycle,” it’s getting hard for people to sort fact from fiction.” Perhaps this says as much about society as it does about media.
So Where Does All This Leave Us?
Some say the solution is as simple as removing the bias from our news media. The problem is, I know quite a few (real) journalists and they are serious about reporting facts. They work in newsrooms and report the news, they tell stories, but gathering and checking facts are what define them. As they work to a set of professional standards and deliver real information. However, we’re witnessing a massive change in the way that ideas are shaped and communicated to the public. Sadly, the traditional avenues of information flow and the mutual respect that even democratic nation states have had with the media appears to be eroding. There is also a disturbing undercurrent of thought that traditional news organizations are biased, and every outlet is always serving a hidden agenda.
Recent events have prompted the need for news organizations to brief their journalists on how to govern themselves in these very “interesting times.” John Daniszewski, Vice President for Standards for Associated Press in a recent blog post called for clarity regarding the definition of the so-called “alt-right.” “We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them,” writes Daniszewski.
Other news organizations are looking at recent events and taking the opportunity to internally brief their journalists. In a recent message to staff, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler wrote about covering President Trump the Reuters way:
“The first 12 days of the Trump presidency (yes, that’s all it’s been!) have been memorable for all — and especially challenging for us in the news business. It’s not every day that a U.S. president calls journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” or that his chief strategist dubs the media “the opposition party.” It’s hardly surprising that the air is thick with questions and theories about how to cover the new Administration. So what is the Reuters answer? To oppose the administration? To appease it? To boycott its briefings? To use our platform to rally support for the media? All these ideas are out there, and they may be right for some news operations, but they don’t make sense for Reuters. We already know what to do because we do it every day, and we do it all over the world. To state the obvious, Reuters is a global news organization that reports independently and fairly in more than 100 countries, including many in which the media is unwelcome and frequently under attack. We don’t know yet how sharp the Trump administration’s attacks will be over time or to what extent those attacks will be accompanied by legal restrictions on our news-gathering. But we do know that we must follow the same rules that govern our work anywhere.”
Adler goes on to provide a set of rules for the Reuters team that I think are very wise, especially given the current environment.
- Cover what matters in people’s lives and provide them the facts they need to make better decisions.
- Become ever-more resourceful: If one door to information closes, open another one.
- Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.
- Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.
- Keep the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles close at hand, remembering that “the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”
- Never be intimidated, but:
- Don’t pick unnecessary fights or make the story about us. We may care about the inside baseball but the public generally doesn’t and might not be on our side even if it did.
- Don’t vent publicly about what might be understandable day-to-day frustration. In countless other countries, we keep our own counsel so we can do our reporting without being suspected of personal animus. We need to do that in the U.S., too.
- Don’t take too dark a view of the reporting environment: It’s an opportunity for us to practice the skills we’ve learned in much tougher places around the world and to lead by example — and therefore to provide the freshest, most useful, and most illuminating information and insight of any news organization anywhere.
Winning back the public trust — Why Experts Matter
Perhaps a way to help reverse this trend is to ask more of our experts within our organizations, and get them to contribute more to these important conversations. It’s about getting our academics, physicians, professionals, and leaders in their respective fields to contribute more to help the media present a more balanced set of perspectives in ways that engage the public.
In this new era, it appears that many experts are invisible to the media on a range of big issues such as climate change, economic data, security, crime and healthcare policy. Opinions — not always informed opinions — are taken as fact. People without qualifications are being asked to speak on topics that require years of study, research, and experience. This is why, now more than ever, we need to see a return of intelligence and knowledge to present true facts.
Credible Experts Matter
Credible sources are vital in helping ensure the proper degree of research has been done. Published work, peer-reviewed studies, as well as policy that has been developed and practised all play key roles in determining an actual expert. Proven credibility cuts through rhetoric. It promotes the delivery and flow of facts as opposed to feeding only one side of a debate.
Being Approachable Matters
We have to agree that the current sentiment that many have toward traditional institutions and their experts is that they are not providing enough practical information of benefit to the public. The term “ivory tower” comes up frequently to describe environments such as universities and think tanks. While we need these environments of intellectual pursuit they cannot be seen as disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life.
Do you know where your information is actually coming from? The flow of money into the development of fake news and so-called “experts” who are pushing agendas is tremendous. We’ve seen it recently with the sugar industry — much like the tobacco industry who literally wrote the book on manipulating and re-wrapping expertise and research in the middle of the last century — setting ideas on nutrition back decades.
The market is crying out for a more consistent way to discover and evaluate the credibility of experts. We need a quick and trusted way to review their education, background, publications as well as their affiliations. We need to be able to conduct a front-line background check before we give them the platform to share their perspectives on television, radio, or in print. We need to vet the expert before they reach an audience that relies on the information being communicated to form opinions and make critical decisions that affect their lives.
Local News Matters
Local media is shrinking. Newsrooms are currently being threatened by constant shifts in both consumption and business models. If we are to promote accurate information and win the war on actual facts, we must make it easier for local journalists to do their jobs. Mainstream media still carries a lot of weight, especially online and television where the nightly news reaches a massive audience. Though the ratings are large, the subject matter doesn’t always resonate with viewers at home. We need to do a much better job helping local media get better access to the experts in our organisations so they can localise issues and tell stories, and do it in ways that everyone can understand. For example, a story on national unemployment numbers has a different context in San Francisco than it does in Flint, Michigan. Climate change is impacting Miami a lot differently than it is in the Great Lake states. In the end, all news is local.
News is increasingly a speed game. With social media, a 24-hour news cycle, and the race to be first, time is of the essence. But in this game, haste may not only make waste, the truth may be a casualty as well. Most recently Fox News reported on a violent shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, Canada. Six people were killed by a lone gunman. Fox News reported that the suspect was of Moroccan origin — that was false.
The shooter was in fact of Canadian origin. It wasn’t until the Canadian Prime Minister’s office requested a retraction that Fox walked the story back…but it took almost two full days. In true Canadian fashion, Kate Purchase, Communications Director for Prime Minister Trudeau thanked Fox News.
In the meantime, wrong information was shared across multiple platforms and seen by millions of people. This is when having your experts prepared, media-trained, and trusted internally to speak with media is key. In times of emergency and chaos, it may be the words, advice and perspective of a high-level expert that can calm a nervous public, or at the very least, clearly explain a situation and its outcomes with accuracy and trust.
So Why Should This Matter to You?
If you are focused on building your market visibility and brand reputation, making your organization’s experts more discoverable and responsive to media is as much a function of good public relations as it is a public service. In these days of fake news, alternate facts, and unclear agendas, an unbiased and objective point of view presented by a credible expert may be one of the few remaining pillars of integrity we have left. Experts bring credibility, reliability, and an elevated level of perspective and advice that the public can trust. It’s up to all of us to ensure our thought leaders rise above the fray and help rebuild the trust that is essential to building a civil society.
How is your organization working with its experts to respond to these challenges? I’m particularly interested in speaking with communications and media relations professionals in higher education, healthcare and professional services as our team conducts more research in this area. Let us know what you think by sharing below. I read every comment.