Fake news, disinformation or misinformation – the proliferation of content designed to manipulate and shape opinion has become a global problem. Propaganda has long been a tool for manipulation – with the notion that it if you repeat something enough, it becomes believable. In many ways, fake news is an evolution of this, but the power to spread misinformation now rests in the hands of the many, rather than the few.
Social media platforms, in particular, have contributed to this. Facebook, Twitter and the like have enabled fake news to travel at an alarming rate. During global news events there is usually an even greater spike in this behaviour – take US presidential elections, for example. Writing ahead of the 2020 election, The New York Timesreported on the extensive sharing of misinformation regarding the election, particularly from right-leaning sources. The extent of the influence that this had on the electorate and their voting decisions can’t be proven conclusively, but it is not a big leap to assume that it played a part.
According to the CoronaVirusFact Alliance, nearly 4,000 Coronavirus-related hoaxes were in circulation globally in April 2020. The same article on tech.co reported that 46% of UK adults were presented with false or misleading information about Covid-19 in the first week of lockdown.
The media as the trusted source
We know that algorithms monitor our browsing history to present us with information that fits our profile – so the more misinformation we access, the more we will see. The increasing number of citizen journalists and online sources puts increasing pressure on traditional mainstream media to ensure that their sources are 100% verified and authenticated.
Journalists must be fully accountable for source material they are quoting, and large news organisations have responded by investing in increasingly sophisticated fact-checking services to verify every story. Of course, legitimacy has always been a fundamental aspect of journalism training, but for young journalists entering the profession, the proliferation of sources is much greater.
Media outlets are at pains to demonstrate the reliability of their reporting. In December 2019, the Yorkshire Post ran an image of a child forced to sleep on the floor of a hospital due to a lack of beds. A reader accused the newspaper of printing fake news. The editor felt compelled to print an open letter to the complainant pointing out exactly how the image had been confirmed as accurate – and in turn encouraging her not to believe unverified sources on social media. He also urged readers to be mindful of phrases such as ‘a close friend of mine who works there’ told me it was fake – phrases that are intentionally designed to manipulate.
This is a specific example, but it does demonstrate the pressure that journalists are under to both justify their content and to educate readers on what is and isn’t credible, so that they can also be more discerning.
Next generation journalism
For journalists in training, and those new to the profession, more emphasis is being placed on understanding how current affairs are covered across different media types globally. At Maastricht University, for example, one of its modules covers: “framing, bias, stereotypes, context, story structure and placement.” Students study “why news is reported as it is around the world and in the process become discerning media consumers better able to filter through the noise and make better decisions for themselves.”
These skills are vital in an evolving newsroom. Research reported in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterlylooked at how US newsrooms have changed in light of the growth in fake news. Researchers found that “journalists were most likely to cross-check with sources more often, limit the use of anonymity, and make it as clear as possible where the information comes from.”
A study released by Cogitatio in Journalism Students and Information Consumption in the Era of Fake News also reveals that students are concerned about their ability to “distinguish between truthful and false information.” It concludes that the ‘promotion of initiatives and research to promote media literacy and news literacy are decisive in the training of university students”.
This pressure to separate fact from fiction has never been more difficult for journalists, given the increasing level of sophistication from those spreading misinformation. However, technology is helping them to make this distinction. By tracking the sources of information and assessing its authenticity, they can detect any editing, deletions, distortion or misuse that may have occurred. It is also possible to identify content that is pulled from multiple sources and may have been manipulated along the way - for when journalists are required to pull stories together at speed to satisfy a 24/7 news agenda.
This also enables media outlets to monitor their content over its entire lifecycle and to receive alerts if that content is re-used or altered in any way.
The media must be the first line of defence against the increasing volume of mis-information that readers are exposed to. Journalists have a vital role to play in maintaining this trust, and those new to the industry must tread a fine line - producing more content, from a greater number of sources, faster while feeling completely confident in their ability to verify everything they report.
Delphine Gatignol, Business Unit Director, Newsback