In 2014, the National Report – an outlet that carries the tagline “America’s #1 Independent News Source” – ran a story. The story, which broke when fears regarding the then spreading Ebola virus were at their height, looked credible enough.
There was no satirical grandstanding, no claims so outlandish that they could immediately be discounted as untrue, nothing to suggest that this was anything other than an honest piece of reporting in good faith.
The crux of the story was that Purdon, a town in the state of Texas, had been quarantined in its entirety after a family of five tested positive for the Ebola virus. This was completely untrue, and yet thousands did not see through the subtle deceit. By October 24, 2014, the story had been shared 339,837 times on Facebook.
Allen Montgomery, one of the publishers behind the National Report, claims that his fake news outlet is a force for moral good, exposing the frailties of public belief and making us all more hardened, more cynical, media consumers.
However, until Mr Montgomery’s “you see? we tricked you!” responses achieve the same sort of virality as his fake news articles, the social value of the service he provides must be questioned.
Media in the age of post-truth
When the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” its Word of the Year for 2016, it was predominately in recognition of the earth-shattering political movements that had taken place in the preceding 12 months—not just in America, but around the world.
First came the UK’s referendum on Europe, which was swiftly colored by misinformation and spurious representations of the truth on both sides—not least the claim of £350m for the National Health Service, which the “Leave” camp had printed on the side of a bus and then totally disavowed after its victory.
Then came the increasingly intensive political goings-on in the U.S as the two main political parties attempted to whittle down their final candidates ahead of the 2016 U.S. election.
A substantial amount of half-truth, untruth, and nothing-like-the-truth was already evident early in the campaign, but the level of slander and misinformation was stepped up a notch when we got down to the final two candidates. This great piece of data visualization from Robert Mann shows the true extent of spurious claims from both sides.
But of course, the media acts as the mouthpiece for such claims. Broadcasters and media services cannot deny their complicity in proliferating the lies of politicians. After all, if we are spreading lies without question, we are no better than the liars themselves.
This – along with fake news scandals like the one cited above – is how the boundary was overstepped. This is how we found ourselves crossing the divide into the realm of post-truth.
Rebuilding shattered reputations
Is there any way back? Is there a way to rebuild trust, to re-develop a reputation that has been so unceremoniously torn down?
There must be, because the media’s current position is untenable. A poll from 2006 found that 59% of Americans trusted the media. By 2014, this figure had slipped to 40%. At the height of the 2016 presidential campaigns, the numbers had fallen even further, hitting an all-time low of 32%.
Nobody trusts the media, and the media only has itself to blame. But what can be done?
At a fundamental level, the media – and, in particular, the news media – needs to change. Journalists who once dealt in facts and figures now deal in sensational tidbits and click-bait articles designed to manufacture interest that isn’t there. Arbitrary concepts like “buzz” and “momentum” have become forms of currency, and something vital has been lost.
To reclaim this, journalists and news broadcasters must look toward data. Data-driven journalism involves examining raw data in its basest form and crafting it into a true-to-life narrative ready for public consumption. True data-driven journalism is immune to misinformation and untruth, and this is the direction we must be heading in.
Code of ethics
In the wake of the Leveson Inquiry into press activity in the UK following the News International phone hacking scandal, Professor Richard Sambrook discussed the need for a code of ethics to which the press must adhere. While advocates of a free press might balk at the suggestion of governmental control of the media – and understandably so – this does not necessarily need to be the form it takes.
Instead, the press can self-regulate while demonstrating to the public that it is serious about change. This is how to navigate the slow road back to respectability.
A cultural shift towards truth
Somewhere along the line – while the maelstrom of selling products and getting ahead of the competition was unfolding – something was lost. That something, it appears, was truth.
Fake news is nothing new, and handled correctly is a valid form of satirical expression. However, too often it is used maliciously to slander others, to garner click revenue and attention, or simply to spread confusion.
This is a frightening cultural shift from the media, and it needs to be rectified. Publishers at all levels must take responsibility for the information they disseminate, recognizing the power of such information and taking ownership of it.
A clear boundary between satirical news and outright fake news must be drawn. An environment needs to be fostered in which fact-checking and strict adherence to truth is practiced as standard. Slate.com, Politifact, Emergent, and Snopes can all handle these levels of rigor, so why can’t the rest of the media do the same?
This would also put pressure on advertisers and media sponsors, who must consider how much rigor individual media companies place on their journalism so as not to be caught advertising in line with a fake news story.
These are the minute movements that will bring about seismic change in the coverage that media companies provide as well as in the advertising and sponsorships they sell.
Writing for The Aspen Institute in December 2016, Charles M. Firestone outlined his own strategy for rebuilding and rehabilitating the news media. This plan included what he referred to as “building civics;” a sort of education service for Americans, requiring schools to give students a grounding in the political, social, and civic machinery that makes America tick.
The thinking behind this is, according to Mr. Firestone, to give Americans the tools required to recognize the reality of a political situation for themselves and therefore hold stories delivered to them by the media to account.
While this would undoubtedly support the process of bringing the media back to a state of respectability, it seems like the impetus – the driving force impelling it forward – must come from within.
The road back to trust is a long and rocky one, but at least we have identified where it begins: right here.
For more on this topic, click here.
This post is the sixth of a seven-part series, Reimagining Media in The Digital Age. Check back weekly for more.