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Fake news: Media-made disaster or unlikely glimmer of hope?

By Dietmar Schantin

Institute for Media Strategies

London, United Kingdom


Stanford University tells us most young people can’t tell when news is fake. The problem is more fundamental than that. Not only do they struggle to identify credible news sources, but they often can’t tell the difference between advertisements and news articles at all.

Even putting “sponsored content” at the beginning isn’t enough to stop 80% of Stanford’s sample from wrongly identifying adverts as articles. Ipsos Public Affairs via BuzzFeed gives the kids a break and takes a larger sample across all age groups, only to find that 75% of adults happily trust fake news.

Some news sources now exist specifically to uncover and clarify fake news.
Some news sources now exist specifically to uncover and clarify fake news.

Mainstream media points to the willful disinformation from conservative media outlets, and even Facebook has vowed to combat the scourge. There’s no shortage of suspects to blame. Fingers point at the industry fabricating news, the ad industry funding it, and even the Russians. The Pope prefers to single out the journalists involved.

Fake news provokes strong feelings in the news community. In our frustration, many of our colleagues have come to the very one-dimensional conclusion that the real problem is the sheer stupidity of readers.

Personally, I think the problem is a deeper one and comes from the heart of the news business — actually any business: the danger of losing your own identity and reason for existence.

If young audiences struggle to identify credible news sources, perhaps it’s because credible sources have lost their way as they chase after traffic and descend into the death spiral of click-baiting.

Before we start accusing our own audiences of being stupid, perhaps we should look at how many media houses are putting a lot of effort into selling space on our own pages for “promoted stories” and/or “native advertising.” Many inaccurate or inappropriate stories are being peddled on the pages of precisely the sources that should be taking the lead in educating readers about critical thinking.

Far from helping readers differentiate between fact and fantasy, we are busy blurring the lines ourselves in a desperate quest for digital ad revenue, which has become more and more challenging for news organisations.

According to the NiemanLab and Jason Kint, 99% of digital advertising growth will benefit Google and Facebook, with the scraps left for others, including media.

It is counterproductive to chase digital ad money with new products such as native advertising (with apparently limited success) if these clever schemes jeopardise one of the few valuable assets we have left as an industry: the trust in our work and our brands.

Should we not, on the contrary, invest in this asset and build commercial models around it, which are not necessarily based on publishing content alone?

Some quality newspapers build on trust and create new revenue streams with membership schemes and offerings outside the traditional publishing business. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, has a thriving conference and event business and growing membership numbers.

These strategies only work when people trust and respect the brand.

The good news is that the fakery furor points the way for what we can and should be doing better — both from a moral and business perspective. The growth of disinformation has led some publishers to capitalise on the phenomena with myth-busting, baloney-debunking journalism.

Take a look at Le Monde’s Les Décodeurs team. With the strap line “Venons-en aux faits” (“Let’s get to the facts”), this little team aims to be the first to expose fake stories.

A recent example of its work: When a photo started to make the rounds on Facebook featuring the Republican candidate François Fillon associating with the National Front, it was promptly exposed by the Décodeurs as a Photoshop fake.

But where Le Monde has been particularly savvy is that the same team exposing fake news is also used to analyse political speeches and try to interpret what they might really mean if put into practice.

The fact-checking team at BBC is committed to uncovering the truth.
The fact-checking team at BBC is committed to uncovering the truth.

Another good example: The BBC has set up a similar team, Reality Check, with the aim of “weighing in on the battle over lies, distortions, and exaggerations,” says news chief James Harding, adding “the BBC can’t edit the Internet, but we won’t stand aside either.”

Given that fake news now takes the form of fake fact checkers, the reassurance and credibility of a brand has never been more important, especially in times of “alternative facts.”

The fake news story shows the last thing the world needs is more news. But it’s not too late for news organisations to own the business of explainers and navigators through an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

Given the ongoing commercialisation of confusion, this is the area I feel we should aim to own and build our business on it.

About Dietmar Schantin

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