Fake news has become headline news. But while US President Donald Trump has publicly derided traditional media over what it believes is factual reporting, could that actually end up being a positive thing for long-established newspapers and broadcasters?
While the results certainly divided opinion, you can’t deny the fact that Brexit and the dawn of Trump’s Presidency are prime examples of how to deliberately exploit the crisis of journalism and rise in social media. Some have dubbed this the emergence of ‘robopolitics’ - the mechanised reproduction of campaign messages that bypass normal journalistic verification. This has led to important questions over the role that the media industry plays in today’s society.
Unfortunately, this is a sign of the times. While the UK has always had a fairly vociferous media landscape, the rise in social and fragmentation of the media has pushed this off the charts. Arguably, some established media publishers have been cutting out the professionals and recycling content from the web to produce cheaper news for a while – fake news, recycled, rehashed, repetitive. Not fit for purpose. The web just churns it around. As Roy Greenslade said: “It is pointless material without any public benefit.”
But there’s hope yet. The irony is that Trump’s constant assault on media outlets as “fake news” as well as rising concern over the spread of misinformation on social media, has actually reinvigorated trust in traditional media. I was pleased to read that the NYT alone added a record 267,000 subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2016, most of them after Trump’s election. A sign that readers are showing renewed commitment to quality information.
The decline in journalism standards can be derived from a failure to embrace digital transformation and develop new sources of digital revenue. Since 2000, total daily sales of UK national newspapers have almost halved to less than 8m — a decline that shows no signs of slowing. At the same time, we’ve seen the likes of Facebook and Google become media giants, with their superior targeting meaning that their UK ad revenue now exceeds that of all newspapers in the country combined.
This has led to an erosion of the "canons of journalism" – the very reason why the PR industry exists. Everyone who works in any aspect of the media has a duty of care to themselves and society to always stay close to the truth, even if we have to work hard to find it.
Talk of fake news has dominated conversation since last November, with Facebook in the midst of the fallout. This has culminated in the BBC recently announcing that it’s assembling a team to fact check and debunk deliberately misleading and false stories masquerading as real news. Wait, what?
We now live in a time of unprecedented media creation and distribution. We’re led to believe that the big stories of the day are Khloe Kardashian’s bum, Madonna’s fall from grace or the latest cat meme. A news agenda driven by what’s trending online, rather than what will have a significant impact on our lives.
But it’s also worth remembering the deep connection of a balanced and professional media industry and functioning democracy. History has shown one cannot exist without the other (this is a great read for anyone interested in learning more).
The latest subscription figures from the NYT are encouraging signs. At a time when we’re all struggling to disseminate fact from fiction, our reliance on established media publishers and quality journalism is greater than ever. We expect them to adhere to their fundamental principles of — truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability.
The PR industry should be a bastion of professionalism for media, in all its forms, and for those that work in it. While media publishers clearly have a long way to go in establishing how they compete in a digital market, we have an important role to play in supporting quality journalism in all its forms.
The phenomena of fake news and misinformation needs to make the media profession at large set its sails in a new direction, and provides a real opportunity for quality journalism to stand out.
Here’s hoping these two globe-shaking news events have provided the media industry with the reinvigoration it needed and serve as a reminder to the public of its fundamental role in deepening democracy.
By the way, the moon landing was definitely real. Or was it?