2016 may have been a good year for news – the big stories certainly came fast enough and thick enough – but it wasn’t a good year for journalism. On both sides of the Atlantic, editors and reporters were in turns bewildered, cowed and overwhelmed by the new age of post-truth politics and fake news. It has been a new era for which journalism seems to have been singularly ill-prepared.
While politicians have often had a tenuous relationship with the truth this was the year in which the half-truths became outright lies and the ordinary lies became brazen whoppers. It was perhaps no surprise that in the aftermath the New York Times ran its first TV ads for seven years under the slogan: “The truth is alternative facts are lies”.
Many journalists remain very unsure about how they should cover powerful people who lie. Do you report something that isn’t true? If you don’t, are you censoring the news? If you do, how do you report it? Is the use of the word ‘lie’ justified? Many media organisations have been playing a game of belated catch-up in dealing with this new style of politics.
So if the media has done a bad job of covering the politics of 2016, what lessons can be learnt? What can it do better next time?
This has to be at the heart of dealing with the half-truths and lies. But it’s not just what you do; it’s also how you do it.
There is no shortage of fact-checking websites and organisations. According to the Duke Reporter’s Lab there are now 114 dedicated fact-checking teams operating in 47 countries across the world. But too often fact-checking operates in its own silo.
Either the checking comes from a separate organisation with its own identity and website or, if it is part of a larger media operation, it is relegated to a separate unit in the newsroom. To be effective, fact-checking needs to be a daily part of the mainstream news team.
In broadcasting it needs to be in the middle of the Ten O’Clock News report, not just a script afterthought from the presenter. In print fact-checking needs to be part of the main article and not shoved to a side box on the inside pages or on the website.
Fact-checking also needs to be bold and blunt and done in real time or as near instantaneous as possible. Late in the American Presidential campaign CNN tried to put fact-checking supers on a few of Donald Trump’s speeches. National Public Radio (NPR) did something similar on its website during the Presidential debates. Now the Washington Post has introduced its RealDonaldContext app to act as an instant check on the President’s tweets. Full Fact, the British charity, is working on a mobile app for journalists to instantly check and question statistics they hear spouted at press conferences. Speed is of the essence for fact-checking to really work but that takes effort, very good judgement and nerve.
Lies and untruths
Too often during the EU referendum debate in the UK dubious claims and counter-claims were allowed to stand unchallenged. Too often Boris Johnson was not quizzed about the £350m a week to the NHS claim. George Osborne’s proposed ‘emergency budget’ was not treated sceptically enough.
The British media needs to be far bolder and blunter in pointing out official falsehoods and lies. It needs to take a leaf out of the American media’s book, which after the failures of the early campaign coverage really seems to have got the bit between its teeth. When senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press to talk about the figures for the attendance at Trump’s inauguration, the host Chuck Todd told her bluntly ‘alternative facts are not facts, they are falsehoods’. In January the New York Times put on its front page the headline: “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers”. That in turn has provoked a debate about the use of that word ’lie’. NPR doesn’t use it arguing that to conclude that someone is lying, you have to know their intent. The Wall Street Journal has expressed a similar view.
Social media is playing an increasing role in elections and political campaigns especially as older, more politically active voters have taken to Facebook. While the role of social media in recent elections can be over-stated (for example most Americans did not get their news from social media, they got it from television), the trends are unmistakable. This in turn has brought a new set of concerns about the phenomenon of fake news. Research by BuzzFeed found that in the final three months of the American presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post and NBC News.
The deliberate manufacturing of news stories to amuse or mislead is nothing new. But the speed and make up of social media means that nowadays the lie gets halfway round the world before anyone can think to challenge.
The recent row about ads appearing next to anti-semitic material on Google’s YouTube service, which caused some advertisers to pull their ads, shows that it is no longer possible for tech companies to deny editorial responsibility for the content they are hosting.
Facebook has been at the centre of many of the rows. Having started out by saying that they did not see themselves as editors, the company now appears to be beginning to belatedly acknowledge that it does have editorial obligations and is not just some value-free technology enabler. It has announced that, for a test period, it will invite users to tag fake news stories. If enough of Facebook’s users report a story, the social network will pass it on to ABC News, AP, FactCheck.org, Politifact or Snopes to check it out.
If a story is deemed to fail, it will be publicly tagged as “disputed by 3rd party fact-checkers”. Users will then be able to click on a link to understand why the story is disputed. Stories that have been disputed may also appear lower in the news feed. It will be interesting to see if this new system can cope with the volume of disputes.
However, this idea of tagging ‘disputed stories’ may bring in its wake its own set of problems. Stories about Israel and the Middle East notoriously attract many complaints about distorted facts and biased coverage. Is every such disputed story going to be tagged? Who is going to decide? This may be a system that satisfies nobody.
Twitter’s new system of allowing people to apply for ‘verified accounts’ ‘of public interest’ – a sort of white-listing of sources regarded as reasonably reliable – may offer a better way forward. All solutions will require money and resources. But then Silicon Valley is not exactly short of those.
If Facebook and the other social media companies do not grasp this nettle firmly soon there will be increasing calls for them to be regulated. In Germany the Justice Minister has said he will introduce a bill to fine internet companies as much as €50 million if they don’t remove material regarded as fake news or hate speech.
But the problem of fake news is not just confined to the social media companies. Mainstream media has a responsibility here too. Beguiled by the prospect of a sensational headline, it can be all too easy for a reporter or editor to give publicity to a story when they suspect or indeed know that it comes from an unreliable source. Reporting every false statement ends up rewarding lies with publicity. That is not to say of course that false news cannot be news in its own right. But the context description and language that surrounds such reporting is all important.
Put into Google the question ‘Who was the first black president of the United States’ and prominently displayed in a box near the top of the search will be an article telling you that there were seven black presidents before Barack Obama including Thomas Jefferson and Dwight D Eisenhower. Put the same question into Bing and you will also get bizarre results. Search engines claim they are merely providing a route for the user to search the Internet. Google says its aim is “to provide the most relevant and useful results for our users”.
But of course it’s not that simple, because the search engines use secret and complex algorithms to determine the ranking of news stories. It looks as though the search engines are going to have to work a lot harder to ensure that the consumer can distinguish between the real and the fake. Otherwise again the prospect of regulation looms.
Journalists on both sides of the Atlantic need to spend less time talking to themselves and more time getting out and listening to the public. There is too much group-think. The media missed a lot of the anger voters were feeling because it didn’t spend enough time on the ground. Newspapers spend too much on competing columnists and not enough on sending reporters out of the office. There is too much desktop journalism. According to the Press Gazette more than 6,500 jobs in regional journalism have disappeared since 2006.
Television should get out more too. The expertise of senior television correspondents in the studio can be invaluable in helping us understand the story, but the news networks now spend too much time interviewing each other. Especially in America, the rise of the in-house political analyst has often produced much more heat than light. On CNN’s election coverage the normally excellent Anderson Cooper was reduced to chairing eight-way shouting matches between Trump-supporting and Clinton-supporting ‘CNN analysts’.
In the future broadcasters will have to think a lot harder about live coverage of candidates. Covering hours of Donald Trump speeches and giving an uncritical live platform to his outrageous claims may have been good for ratings on the US news channels but was not necessarily good for democracy. Breaking news coverage makes real-time fact-checking hard. Putting Nigel Farage frequently on the panel on Question Time because he’s ‘good value’ may make for a lively programme but it also skews the political process.
At press conferences it’s become all too easy for politicians to shut down a topic by restricting correspondents to one question each. There needs to be greater collaboration between news organisations and a willingness to follow up on each other’s questions.
Coverage of immigration
Some British newspapers seriously need to ask themselves whether their coverage of immigration has been responsible and proportionate. Yes immigration raises some serious questions that need to be debated but sensational reporting out of context is not good journalism. We need to ask ourselves why Britons think 24 per cent of the population are immigrants when the real figure is 13 per cent. The regulator Ipso should take more of a lead here, as could the Society of Editors. The rejection by Ipso of the complaint against Katie Hopkins’ cockroaches column in the Sun means that at the very least the Editors’ Code urgently needs revising.
Broadcast news in Britain is required to be duly impartial. That obligation needs to stay. In America the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine ushered in the start of one-sided news channels such as Fox and MSNBC coupled with the rising talk radio anger of the shock jocks. It is a process that has continued unchecked all in the name of free speech. You can now watch or listen to news 24 hours a day in the States and never encounter a view contrary to your own. Such a polarised media is not healthy for democracy. You now have large groups of blinkered voters for whom the facts have been fixed to fit the argument.
Impartiality and false balance
While a continued commitment to impartiality in broadcast news is vital, it is a concept that should be neither misunderstood nor misused. In the hands of bad editors impartiality can lazily lapse into false equivalence. As my former colleague Allan Little shrewdly remarked, if you have two men arguing in a pub and one says two plus two equals four and the other says they equal six, the truth does not lie somewhere in between. Too often in the EU referendum campaign broadcasters cautiously went for spurious balance rather than a serious weighing of the facts. The more vigorous and questioning stance adopted by the broadcasters in the 2017 General Election suggests that some lessons have been learnt.
Finally in the new media era, with its ever widening choice of sources of news, we all – but particularly the next generation – need help to make sense of the bewildering array of information on offer, to enable us to pick our way through the facts and the fakes. A recent survey for Channel 4 suggested that 96 per cent of Britons have trouble distinguishing between fake news and true reports. Media literacy is a subject much talked about but where tragically little has been done.
In 2004, the then Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell predicted that "...in the modern world, media literacy will become as important a skill as maths or science. Decoding our media will become as important to our lives as citizens as understanding literature is to our cultural lives". How prescient those words sound today. She pointed to the need for media literacy to be embedded in the National Curriculum. After that, unfortunately, the idea became lost in various changes in government media policy. Sadly very little happened. Today the idea seems more important than ever. A proper programme of digital media literacy alongside active civic literacy could be a large part of the answer to many of the risks of fake news and without the need for restrictive and expensive regulation.
Journalism and democracy
Why does all this matter? It matters because it matters for democracy. The effective functioning of a democracy crucially depends on being able to give the electorate enough reliable information for it to be able to make an informed choice between platforms, parties and candidates. That in turn depends on there being enough of a consensus on the basic facts to be able to establish a baseline for debate.
When politicians foment misinformation and citizens are left uninformed, democracy falters. As Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post (and the real-life hero of the film Spotlight), puts it: “How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?” It is that consensus that the pollution of fake news and the relativism of post-truth politics wilfully seeks to destroy. The media can and must play a vital role in providing the facts and calling out the lies. But it needs to do a far better job than it has managed to so far.
Phil Harding is a journalist and broadcaster. He is a former editor of Radio Four’s Today programme and was Controller of Editorial Policy at the BBC.
This piece is an extract from "Brexit, Trump and the Media", edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, Abramis Academic Publishing, Bury St Edmunds. Available to Journalism.co.uk readers at the special price of £15.00 from firstname.lastname@example.org.
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