Journalism’s response to the rise of fake news has been to go down one of two paths (generally).
One path involves lamenting, criticising or lambasting organisations such as Facebook for a) creating the problem of fake news by providing the algorithmic bubbles which allow confirmation bias to be confused with popularity and b) then providing a very clever way to make money from that audience.
The other path involves doubling down on our commitment to facts. “How should journalism respond to fake news? Report the facts!” is a phrase I’ve seen frequently on social media. The rise of ‘fact checking’ services has also been heralded as a way to fight back against fake news.
The latter makes us feel all warm and cuddly as journalists, as it plays to our core beliefs: That facts are sacred, and we’re the people to share the facts. The former plays to a common belief in journalism – that when people aren’t listening to us, it’s not our fault.
Fighting fake news with fact checking is a little like giving someone with a serious illness porridge and telling them it will make them better. It’s highly unlikely it will make them better for good. It might make them feel a little less unwell for a little bit, and it’ll make the person serving the porridge feel good too. But it won’t cure the underlying problem – the serious illness.
Fake news may well be the product of clever minds who spotted how to game the popularity of content = lots of revenue model created by social networks and search engines. But our ability to deliver a solution is a symptom of the fact journalism still has a long way to go to be relevant enough in the lives of readers to combat fake news.
Indeed, the very sight of the President Donald Trump lambasting CNN and BBC as being ‘fake news’ and his press spokesman happily offering up what some now call ‘alternative facts’ which don’t stand up to even basic scrutiny shows us the scale of the challenge before us.
Nor are the antics of Donald Trump the first sign of this. UKIP leader Nigel Farage and a number of mainstream political party figures played fast and loose with the facts in the run up to the EU referendum in the UK. Their claims were fact checked to death yet still people chose to believe those over the analysis which was produced by the acre in the media.
Futurologist Amy Webb made a room of 2,000 journalists laugh at the Online News Association conference in Denver when she told the room that the spiking search time on June 24 was “What is the EU?” just after over 70% of the population had cast its judgement on the organisation:
Eek. Fake news is the natural evolution of the half-truths politicians spin. The fact politicians like Donald Trump and some Brexit leaders had the confidence to spin non-truths tells us that the question we need to be asking ourselves isn’t “What do we do to stop fake news?” but “Why aren’t people listening to us?”
The engagement game
The answer, I believe, lies with how journalists see themselves within the community they serve. To prosper and be relevant, journalism needs to see itself as a customer service industry, dealing in facts to a public which welcomes our presence in their lives.
The New York Times and others in America have reported an upsurge in subscriptions since Donald Trump was elected. That’s great – but a few hundred thousand new subs is tiny in contrast to the population of America. Likewise, the bumps in readership we saw post-Brexit didn’t last, but did provide us with the comfort that people appreciate journalism when things are confusing.
Our challenge isn’t to sustain our journalism – it’s to make our journalism relevant to the people who are choosing to believe, and share, fake news.
For every person horrified in America by Donald Trump’s treatment of the press, I’m sure you’ll find many – if even engaged with the debate – who would argue he’s just sticking it to the elite, of which the media are now part in their eyes. It’s a similar argument deployed by UKIP in the UK. Any criticism of UKIP is dismissed by UKIP as ‘the media picking on us’ and sadly, it’s an excuse which often seems to work.
Why does it work now? I can only speculate. Were people generally more engaged in ‘current affairs’ in the old days? Was there a greater trust for news when it came from fewer sources? Did previous generations have a greater sense of civic responsibility and engagement and the need to be informed? Or does fake news just really prove that deep down people just want to read the stuff which confirms what they think, as they always have done?
The solution, I do think, is quite simple, but hard to get to. If we want our mission to be that we inform, then we need to make sure we are talking with people who want to be informed by us. To do that, we need to make sure they value what we do and why we do it – and for that to happen people need to feel they are being listened to.
The successful journalists I see achieving this are those who spend time talking with (not to) readers on social media, not just on their pages or feeds, but in the places people are congregating anyway.
It does, generally, involve scraping through a period of score-settling from people who have an axe to grind with journalism or a newspaper – a sense of perceived bias against what that reader believes, an error from long ago in an article another reader hasn’t been forgotten and so on – but once through that, people generally respond well to having a reporter in their community.
At a very early workshop about using Twitter, I remember the FT’s Tim Brashaw likening it to being in a pub. It’s an analogy which stands the test of time. Journalism will prosper – and fight fake news effectively – when journalists are sought out in the metaphorical pub for facts and information because the reputation of that information is beyond doubt.
We’re not there yet. There are, of course, publications which are successful in building a relationship with readers which results in them parting with cash for online subscriptions. They tend to be niche publications, appealing to audiences which are already particularly engaged. Those are the audiences which are are easy to convert because they are open to the value journalism provides in their lives.
Community is king, queen, all of the above
Be it a noisy neighbour shouting on a Facebook group that his local paper is ‘rubbish and full of lies’ (as I saw this week) or the most powerful man in the world confident enough in his ability to communicate with people that he can denounce the BBC as ‘fake news’ (as we’ve all seen this week), there’s no shortage of proof that journalism has a fight on its hands to remain relevant in the distribution of facts and information.
Doubling down on facts and shouting about our facts won’t cut it. Sitting on the buddy bench – a common sight in schools across the world for youngsters who have no-one to play with and who want someone to play with – is surely the most important thing we can do as journalists.
Show readers we care about them through our words and actions, and make them part of what we do. Listen and learn from them, and surely they’ll listen and learn from us. Suddenly, the concept of community building around journalism doesn’t seem so woolly anymore. It’s essential.