Fake news has been a buzz term ever since Trump made it to the highest office.
But fake news is not new. It has been around since the birth of social media. As we know social media can be a free-for-all where anyone can talk “fact” – or at least their own set of facts – and then try to pass off authentic. The lines have become well and truly blurred between opinion and news – and this has added to the confusion over what is genuine. Some have taken this one step further and use the opportunities the internet provides to create their own news with no checks and balance. Yes social media can definitely bring out the worst in some people – no holds barred – no filter on their thoughts.
(But let’s not forget how liberating social media has been – it has given voices to the masses who are able to question those in authority and, in turn, has even helped bring down corrupt regimes.)
So many of us have become would be journalists and commentators reporting on our lives and whatever we come into contact with. However, let’s not fool ourselves, we are we are not credible news sources that have gone through several layers of checks and balancing.
The growth in the internet has been at the expense of good old fashioned reporting by journalists trained in the law and ethics of reporting. Yes the profession – and it is a profession – has not helped itself over the last decade but scratch under the surface and you will find that most reporters are proud to see themselves as the “first recorders of history”. Look through any local newspapers’ archives and you will find reports as good as any of Simon Schama’s. But there is a real danger our local and regional papers could soon disappear forever. Since 2005 198 UK local newspapers have shut. Falling sales and advertising revenue caused by the switch to the internet have meant newspapers are no longer viable as businesses. The online giants are hoovering up the advertising revenue – Google’s revenue worldwide has rocketed from $86m in 2001 to $90bn last year while Facebook’s revenue last year was £27bn. Their ads are targeted – they don’t rely on someone going out to buy a paper and then notice an advert on a page. Last week, Trinity Mirror, one of our biggest local newspaper groups, reported a 16% drop in group turnover for the first four months of the year.
The new gatekeepers of the news are the likes of facebook – but how can they gatekeep from such a distance. Local communities, politics and life stories can’t be judged by an algorithm. We need to ask as a society – who do we want our reporters to be? Unchecked gossips, political activists or journalists who have been trained to report accurately and fairly. My first assignment as a qualified reporter was about a local community’s upset about the actions of a local chemical company. There were two clear sides to the story. After drafting my copy (including the views of both sides), it went through a series of checks – chief reporter, sub editor and editor – and even the lawyers. Elements were rewritten, words analysed and then checked again before it was published. These checks were carried out based on local knowledge, context, legality and fairness. The growing void resulting from our disappearing traditional media also leaves a big void in scrutiny.
With reporting comes responsibility. We need to remember this the next we treat the internet as own newspaper or question more closely some of the news sites we click on.
(All the figures contained within this piece were first published in The Sunday Times May 7th 2017)