By Nicholas Karides
In trying to understand the threat of fake news, a strange thing is occurring. We seem to have accepted without challenge the purity of that which is threatened.
How well did the media system work before this fakeness appeared? How real has real news been? The historian Noah Yoval Harari has quite poignantly asked: “When we say that we are living in the era of post-Truth, should we not ask when was the era of Truth?”
More importantly, how much responsibility does real journalism bear for the emergence of fake news?
Disinformation – the right term for fake news – includes false, inaccurate, manipulated information sometimes blended with facts which is produced and promoted to cause public harm or sometimes simply to generate profit. It aims at spreading doubt, creating uncertainty and questioning institutions.
The journalistic spectrum spans between the malicious stuff, the Russian trolling, the incessant twitting, the manipulated videos and solid journalism, well-researched reporting truthfully prepared. There are many shades in the middle.
But it is the deterioration of the quality of our real news, of those shades in the middle, the corporatisation of media, the trivialisation of news, the lack of investment in writers and editors and the new click-bait culture among quality mainstream that has allowed for fake news to invade our everyday life, blend in the scenery and undermine confidence in the media itself.
A survey by the Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that people associate the term Fake News less with false information designed to masquerade as news reports and more with poor journalism generally.
US President Donald Trump has merely exploited this context. His persistent use of the term and his targeting of mainstream media must be understood, not only in terms of his strategic populist poisoning of the scene, but through his own previous experience as a celebrity billionaire. The media had tormented and looked down on him for years. He despised them.
February 10, 1990 was a bad day for Trump. The break up of his first marriage was played on the front pages of the US press when his affair with Marla Maples was revealed.
The following day, February 11, when Trump made the cover of the US press was also a bad day for journalism. It was the day after the release of Nelson Mandela by the South African regime. That story was on the inside pages. It was also the day after Chancellor Kohl visited Moscow and got Gorbachev to agree that Germans had the right to decide whether they wanted to live in one state. That too was buried in the inside pages.
Why does this matter? It does because in the 1990s the celebrity-infotainment culture took over. On the page and on TV screens lifestyle and celebrity sections expanded. Corporate Media shifted into a profit-pursuing mode and public broadcasting and traditional broadsheet papers shrunk and scrambled to adapt.
Sales and ratings took precedence over content and quality. Junk news marginalised serious news. It became normal for popular culture gossip, sensationalism, personality cults to be news.
The public was distracted. Conventional journalism became caught up in the entertainment circus. Today gossipy, inaccurate, unchecked, sensational news are all manifestations of a new environment of news, which we accept as part of our mainstream intake.
We internalised this new model and though it was frivolous and a distraction from the big issues, we still afforded them the popularity and respectability they sought.
So when we now talk of defending the freedom of the press from the populist onslaught of disinformation, we must remember that we are defending in large part the right of mainstream media corporations to continue to make profit on a menu that includes this type of journalism.
There were other developments too in the late 90s. The communication sector emerged, the profession of “press officer” exploded in government and in the private sector. Media experts, spin doctors, who may once have been journalists were now working in the system feeding other journalists with copy and glossy press packs. We were bombarded with increasing PR manufactured information.
The press officer trying to make the journalist’s life easier became the norm.
They wrote the story out for you, shaped it and protected that which must not be told. Not just innocent press releases about a government initiative or a corporate acquisition. Consider the importance of the press officer in war zones, the emergence of the press pool during the Iraq war, where journalists were “embedded” and escorted to the front-line by defence department press officers and fed specific information.
Real journalism was left to specialised investigative broadsheets and TV programmes, a few independent minded correspondents who would persist to do good work.
As corporate and government press officers proliferated media budgets shrunk. Media sought to exploit the new PR environment and began to sell column space, what we now casually call ‘paid content’. The new term ‘earned media’ allowed sponsored – not always identified – content to be served on news pages. Since the ‘news’ was being delivered ready, and the media outlet was earning something by merely hosting it, there certainly was less need to have many journalists chasing the news.
In the fast news cycle where everything is available, where information is coming to you instead of you going out to chase it, publishers, even the most well-intentioned, will make cuts.
They don’t need the best writers, less so the best editors, just fast copy. Where journalists were needed, they didn’t need to be highly paid. The quality of the writing fell.
As criticism grew the media became conscious that it was not doing its job properly and sought to protect key principles that came under threat: One was objectivity.
Accused of being close to the system and not wanting to be perceived as partial, the media became more cowardly, overly cautious. It overcompensated by going to extremes to be seen to be fair.
News bulletins, current affairs programmes and reporting itself began to suffer because this cautiousness – wanting to be liked by readers, viewers and especially advertisers – made media step back from hard in-your-face journalism.
They opted instead for what was disguised as fair journalism, allowing a voice to all sides to a debate, even the fringes. In time those fringes, the extremes even became attractive, because they provided good television and good copy headlines.
News organisations saw that mediating confrontational politics made for better viewing figures. It was called Both-Sides journalism.
They falsely equated unequal arguments, pseudo experts with scientists, populists with academics and though they created attractive sound-byte television they contributed to a false equivalence on key issues infusing the public with false dilemmas.
Both Sides Journalism forced the collapse of the rational middle, moderate journalism. Consider the climate change debate. Media offered the same amount of time to climate change deniers as they did to environmental scientists as if their positions were of equal intellectual and scientific value. The public got to see two sides of a debate where on the one side sat a clown and on the other a critical thinker.
The news organisation relinquished its responsibility to judge itself whether one view was either extreme or misleading or indeed true.
The real damage came when this principle of false equivalence was applied to bigger issues like Brexit. Why would a populist as marginal as Nigel Farage get disproportionate exposure?
In the words of British radio commentator James O’Brien, the journalist became the referee abandoning his or her role as someone who is knowledgeable enough to challenge false assertions and in the process legitimised those assertions. Instead of cornering and dismissing the populist view on his right, the journalist would listen to the stupid argument and turn to the other side and ask: “How do you respond to that?”
In came Facebook and Twitter who have no interest in integrity and objectivity, or in the truth. Through their addictive nature we have all become guilty participants. Every one of us, equipped with the capacity to share or re-tweet, amplify information and are part of this chain of conformity that this new context has established. Victims and perpetrators.
The information pressure on all of us everyday is intense, and the technology is oppressive. News is reaching us faster than we can process and in ways that sometimes we can’t make sense, allowing speculation and disinformation to dominate. We are being denied the capacity to step back and judge what is useful and what is not, what is correct and what is not, what is real and what is fake. In the process we seem to have also lost our capacity for solitary introspection.
But not all is lost. Media watchdogs are waking up to the threats. On the ground a new sense of consciousness and responsibility is emerging among publishers, editors, journalists and, crucially, among more demanding readers. Professionals and academics are teaming up in media think tanks and working hard to push an agenda of fact-checking, of educating the public and training a new, better breed of journalists.
There is now a strong movement in favour of what is called Slow Journalism where it is not important to be first, but where it is important to be right. An attempt to break the breaking news culture. Good journalism requires time from the journalist and time from the reader. Slow journalism breeds good journalism.
Yes, Fake News remains a significant threat but it is not responsible for election losses. Elections are lost for much more serious reasons. They are lost because of the collapse in our politics and our policies; because we lose focus of what is important from what is not. Journalism needs to change for sure. Politics and Policies more so. But so do we.
Nicholas Karides is the founder of Ampersand, the Nicosia based public affairs firm and network partner of ICF Mostra (Brussels).
This article is an edited version of a speech he delivered at the annual conference of the Society of Risk Analysis Europe held at Mid Sweden University earlier this month.