We see the headlines posted across the political spectrum of journalism, with fake news accusations that make deciphering the truth a confusing task. With a recent Statista poll finding that 52% of respondents believe online news outlets regularly publish fake news stories, while another 34% believe they do occasionally, there is no question that fake news – or rather the concept of fake news – has permeated society.
But what exactly is “fake news”?
I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference in London that explored perceptions of fake news, the current media landscape and the future of communication in our digitally-driven society. Chaired by former BBC Six O’Clock editor and Head of Journalism at BBC World Service Languages Nikki Clarke, the panel was comprised of a slate of media professionals from across the board, including The Guardian Media Editor Jim Waterson, Mimi Turner, whose roles have included positions at Vice Media and LADbible, as well as a professor of Russian studies and a British member of the European Parliament.
Their discussion yielded three key takeaways that media professionals and everyday readers alike can benefit from, each of which involves a delicate balancing act of subjective decision-making that calls into question the core of the fake news movement and the effects these accusations have on news organizations and society at large. These concepts extend to brands who want to ensure the information they share and support aligns with what is accurate — and truthful — for their audiences.
- The inability to objectively define fake news is a good reason to abolish the term. While the idea of labeling fake or false stories and propaganda may have originally started for noble reasons, the term has been picked up too liberally to be quantified. As The Guardian’s Waterson put it, it’s turned into everyone’s boogeyman, causing whatever truth it initially held to lose its luster.
- There is a fine line between freedom of speech and consumer protection. This one can be tricky. Particularly in the US, we strongly value the right to free speech. But when does that speech become harmful? If and when does it cross the line between freedom and a malicious intent to deceive? As came to light following the 2016 presidential election, ad tampering and false stories can quickly permeate social media, potentially affecting votes in major elections. Though we may never fully understand the extent to which this did – or did not – occur in the recent case of the US, it is nonetheless important that we keep asking questions and keep fighting for both freedom of speech and transparency in reporting in order to protect our right to speak up as much as our right to know the truth.
- It’s more important to focus on what constitutes good news reporting. This is arguably our greatest defense against so-called fake news. As consumers of the news we have an obligation to do our due diligence. We should temper our news consumption with a healthy dose of research-focused skepticism. How can this best be accomplished? Reference multiple sources, take commentary with a grain of salt, and give preference to media outlets that work to confirm their sources. Good news is quantifiable. It is thoroughly reported, supported with evidence and typically covered by many outlets.
We are constantly bombarded with new and often conflicting information. Multiple media outlets, anonymous sources, blogs and social platforms have created an environment where everyone has a voice. But with this availability comes the need to distinguish fact from fiction. As we continue to evolve our communication strategies, it will be more important than ever that we embrace the dialogue surrounding what constitutes good and balanced reporting. Ultimately, in this era of information overload and peak media, we should strive to focus on what is shaping up to be the 2018 word of the year: transparency.
Andrea Brake is an advertising and media editor at SmartBrief. Prior to joining the SmartBrief team, Andrea was an accomplished entrepreneur who founded and led a multi-state franchise enterprise in the Pacific Northwest and also worked as a freelance content writer and editor for several national and international publications. She has a B.S. in psychology and recently completed her MBA in international business.