It’s been a pretty incredible couple of weeks (scratch that – months) for the world of journalism. In an increasingly polarised world where emotion trumps truth (pun intended), it’s just too easy to silo yourself away in a social media bubble surrounded only by people who share your views, reading only the articles they share, and reading opinion pieces as though they were matters of fact.
Who’s to blame? The “dishonest media”? Trolls? Petty liberals and conservatives more concerned with advancing their own world views than creating a more inclusive and fair society?
Or is it you?
Are you taking responsibility for how you read, share and shape the news? Let’s take a look at how consumers could do a better job of fighting fake news.
Understand the value of journalism
If you are truly concerned about fake news and the decline of the independent media, but you are unwilling to pay a few dollars a month for quality journalism, you’re part of the problem. Since the election of Donald Trump in the US, highly respected news sites like the New York Times have seen a phenomenal increase of more than 100,000 paid subscriptions. Meanwhile, the Washington Post plans to add 60 journalists after seeing a 75% increase in paying subscribers in 2016.
This may represent a turning point in digital journalism. In the last decade, the widespread availability of wifi and the mobile revolution have led to an abundance of websites worldwide claiming to offer free news. In fact, very few of these hire trained and qualified journalists to carry out investigative journalism. Instead, they wait for real journalists to break the news and then use their platforms to disseminate in at a fraction of the cost. The result is a market swamped with websites offering news for free, and very little public desire to pay for true journalism.
But now – finally – people are coming to realise that just like most things in life, you pay for what you get. You want well researched, vetted and edited news articles based on facts? Shell out a few dollars a month. For less than the cost of your Netflix subscription, you could get access to not one but two quality news outlets (one local and one international, maybe?)
Use common sense to scrutinise the news you read
Social media has democratised communication; once I post this article on Facebook, it will appear in newsfeeds alongside viral videos of animals being hilarious, updates from family and friends, articles from highly respected media institutions and, of course, fake news. The implications of this are both exciting and dangerous.
Most people don’t read the whole article, which can make it difficult to apply the level of scrutiny required, but here are some basic things to think about when making a judgement:
- Is this a registered media outlet with trained journalists and an established editorial process?
- Who is the writer, and what are his are her known biases? Does the channel have a liberal or conservative bias?
- Is this a news article, which has gone through a rigorous fact-checking process, or is it mainly an opinion or comment piece?
- Who is quoted in the article? Has comment been sought from a variety of different stakeholders?
- What are the article’s sources? Does it reference government statistics, academic research or independently verified data?
- Are straw man arguments or ad hominem attacks being presented instead of facts?
- Do the ‘facts’ being presented contradict video, photographic and witness evidence?
Fake news isn’t going away any time soon, and try as journalists may to get the facts out there, it’s our responsibility as consumers to make sure we’re not blindly consuming ‘alternative facts’.
If you hate click bait, stop clicking on it
Media organisations have difficult choices to make as they walk the line between holding institutions accountable for their actions and giving media consumers what they want.
Much as people outwardly complain about clickbait articles on what one of the Kardashians did next or Brangelina’s divorce, these are the articles that immediately fly to the top of ‘Most read’ lists.
Articles on complicated new government policies may seem boring and difficult to read; reports on the latest drone attacks in Iraq and Syria may prompt empathy-fatigue, but ultimately we must understand that the media choices we make every day will ultimately provoke a change in what is offered to us.
It’s too easy to make lazy attacks on the media without looking at ourselves, and how we’re providing the catalyst for the decline of the first estate.
So let’s make a deal: Let’s pay for news organisations for good journalism because we know good journalism isn’t free to produce; let’s go beyond our Facebook feeds to find out what the real stories are and let’s scrutinise the facts closely. And let’s stop claiming we hate clickbait and behaving in a way that suggest the opposite.
Katie Harrington is a Public Relations professional based in Dublin. Her book, Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art launched in November 2016. Katie has worked with global brands including Emirates Airline and Allianz, as well as the Irish parliament and Qatar’s semi-government oil and gas company Nakilat. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.