Fake news a blessing in disguise

30 January 2017

The spotlight that has been placed on fake news could be a blessing in disguise for journalists and news consumers, according to a Deakin University journalism scholar Dr Usha Rodrigues.

“Fake news is well and truly under the spotlight thanks to Macquarie Dictionary naming it word of the year and Donald Trump using the term to call out stories and news outlets that he deems unworthy, providing a wake-up call for both journalists and audiences,” Dr Rodrigues said.

“For journalists and media outlets there is an opportunity to demonstrate to their audiences, who have got used to free click-bait news, that quality journalism matters.

For audiences it is imperative to not get carried away in the frenzy of ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ emotive stories going viral on social media without making a judgement about their credibility.”

Dr Rodrigues said despite the current hype around the term, fake news in of itself was not new, with newspapers in the 19th Century moving to sensationalise their news stories to increase circulation, while some early newspapers were totally or partly funded by political parties in return for favourable coverage. However, she said what was new was its prevalence and the speed by which it could go viral via social media.

“For a long time the professionalism of journalism, journalists’ training and education, the newsroom processes of counterchecking and the implementation of codes of ethic helped news outlets maintain a level of faith with the public,” she said.

“However the fault-line between the media as a public service and its commercial imperative has often been exposed in sensational, biased, inaccurate, negligent and at times deceptive reporting of events and issues, adding to the deficit in public trust in the past few decades.

“And then came social media which gave individuals, particularly politicians, the chance to bypass journalists and practice the art of mass self-communication.

“This has created the perfect storm where news stories are shared by social media users with their networks, at times without even reading the content. Fake news stories, which in a back-handed compliment to traditional news outlooks, look like authentic news stories with a byline, a picture and a headline, get shared and distributed by networking public.

“This widespread distribution of outlandish fake news stories on social media does point to the fact that news consumers do not believe that they are finding out the whole truth from their regular news publications (print or online).”

In this age of click-bait and fake news, Dr Rodrigues said the mainstream news media was more relevant than ever before for providing verified and scientifically gathered facts and views, and not someone’s figment of imagination.

“But journalists and their news organisations need to repair their reputation as credible, relevant and reliable sources of information about what is happening in the corridors of power and on the streets,” she said.

“Journalists need to double down on news verification process, and report news that is accurate and fair. They need to better connect with their fickle audiences, where they can build a personal brand as a reliable source of information. If news is a public service which needs to be paid for, then the audience need to know the cost of not paying for quality news.”

At the end of the day, Dr Rodrigues said it was audiences who would decide whom to trust in this post-truth era.

“Audiences have always voted with their feet by consuming one media over the other, and supporting public service broadcasters in countries such as Australia and the UK,” Dr Rodrigues said.

“In this fake news era, where politicians have found direct communication means with their fellow citizens, it is up to the people to be more discerning in understanding the rules of engagement when it comes to good governance and the role of quality journalism to act as a counter to bad governance.”

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Media release Faculty of Arts and Education, School of Communication and Creative Arts

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