The fake fake news debate

Rather than put up an informed debate, all you need now do is roar ‘fake news!’ at anything you don’t like. How has it come to this?

Right off the bat let’s be clear what ‘fake news‘ is. It’s pure fabrication, invention and lies dressed up as a news story. It is intended to deceive. Anyone doing rudimentary fact-checking could expose the lies fairly easily.

Two things fake news is NOT…

  1. It’s not a new phenomenon. There are examples stretching back to Roman times and before. It is said Mark Anthony killed himself due misinformation spread about him by his opponents.
  2. It’s not news you don’t like. News you don’t like may make you feel uncomfortable. That’s OK. That’s how you learn new things. But that don’t make it fake.

New vs Opinion

It’s also important to distinguish between news and opinion.

The mainstream media publishes news (well researched and balanced facts) as well as opinion pieces (the author’s viewpoint).

Basically put, anyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts.

Facts are facts.

Put it another way, opinions are cheap, facts are expensive. Facts need checking. The truth is not always obvious.

Thank goodness for real journalists. I have worked with them. I know one when I see one. I can also spot a charlatan, dressing up their opinions as facts.

When we employ journalists, we are not interested in their opinion. We are interested in consuming a well thought out, clear statement of fact. The story. The main headline, the actors involved, and how it might impact on us and others.

At the same time, we are entertained by opinion writers. We are interested in their views. They present facts, but line up an argument, usually one way or the other. We may disagree, we may be convinced, we may already concur. But we should be made to think.

In life, we need facts in order to make decisions: where and whether to buy or sell a property and what type, or whether to start or sell or invest in a certain type of business or even who to vote for… perhaps our most important act.

Fundamentally, we need to distinguish what is fact, and what is opinion. In order to trust our media organisations, on which we base these decisions, we need to be comfortable that they are telling us the truth, as best they see it.

If we are reading opinion, this needs to be clear. We need to know the difference between this and news.

Authors should also provide disclaimers if their ‘news’ story was paid for by an interest group. That makes it an advertisement, not a news story. Not even an opinion.

Writers should also declare a personal interest. If they are writing about Telstra, they should mention they own Telstra shares if they do.

Why publish fake news?

Due to the long standing ‘trust’ in our mainstream news organisations, and their behaviour hitherto (exposing lying politicians, or scandals in the Church, or whatever) we take information written about someone or some issue in an editorial context as being more powerful than advertising (that is known to be ‘paid-for’ communication).

News has the whiff of gravitas (‘it’s there in black and white‘). It has been considered considered, prudent, weighty. Certain laws exist to protect someone being libelled in the press, and news organisations are careful to check facts before committing to pushing the publish button.

So, if you can dress up biassed opinion – or even downright lies – as news, you might be able to persuade people. If a story says something bad about a politician you don’t like, it can confirm your opinion. If it’s about someone you don’t like, you may find a way to ignore it, or even attack the source.

What if that story was totally bogus? A few years ago, the self-defense mechanisms in our democracy may have corrected the situation. The media organisation could be sued, or challenged to print a retraction, or provide compensation.

Times have changed. Fundamentally, and possibly irrevocably.

Over the past decade or so, journalism has been under attack. The business model of the news media companies has been disrupted. Many editors, journalists, sub editors and photo journalists have lost their jobs. A whole industry has been run almost to ground.

Few media organisations have found “the way” forward.

Maybe NY Times (which has put on 1M+ new subscribers since the last election), Financial Times and, locally, Business News have found a way forward by persuading subscribers to pay for their news and data content through paywalls. In this way they have aligned their information with their readers.

It’s a brave path forward, but perhaps the only one if we are to protect good journalism. If people value it, they’ll pay, If they pay, the media businesses survive. Trust is paramount. If paying subscribers feel they are being dished rubbish, they’ll not pay.

By the same token, if we expect news to be free, then that’s what we’ll end up with –  opinionistas who tell us what we want to hear. I’m a blogger, after all – this is my opinion. It ain’t news!

Faced with depleting revenues, some ad-model news media have had to run sensationalist headlines to cut through and make money. It’s a race to the bottom. Clickbait. A mug’s game. They are failing. It’s not the way forward. (In my opinion!)

Meanwhile, people get their news in all kinds of ways, many of them highly dubious. Few of them are actual news organisations.

Taking advantage of the situation

Among all this maelstrom you have politicians who now seem to get away with telling lies, knowingly, for effect. (‘He/she tell sit like it is. Says what we’re thinking.‘) I’m not going to name them, but you can guess to whom this refers.

[By the way, since when should we only listen to people who tell us what we are thinking? What’s the blooming point of that?!!]

Debate has now been dumbed down to Twitter rants and trolling. Sound bytes. Pre-staged photo opps and ‘door stops’. Lies, exposed fairly quickly by an exasperated media, are ignored as the entertainment moves on to the next distraction. No one takes responsibility, and political discourse has been damaged.

Worse still, our democracy is weakened. For if the people cannot gauge easily what is fact and what is plainly made up, as it whizzes past them on their Facebook feed (which itself is manipulated based on what you already like to see) then those same people can’t make informed decisions. People get elected on lies. And worse, the worst people could get elected to high office.

How should we respond?

The media has to call lies out, shine the light and expose lies when they are there. It’s their job, in a democracy, to do so. They speak truth to power. They clarify and explain.

But that’s not enoogh. They also have do a better job of getting people to pay for news. To subscribe. To make the case for this. And we, the consumers, need to front up and pay. Yes, I know you can get free news anywhere, but in the same way you have to pay for your shoes, food, water and shelter, you need to pay for your news.

The alternative? We’re living it everyday.

I’d prefer ‘power to the people’. Which is literally what the Greek word ‘democracy’ means.

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2 thoughts on “The fake fake news debate

  1. Thanks Charlie. With regards to paying for good journalism, I’m all for it. However, I also don’t wish to put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak, with other news outlet (just like I don’t wish to be restricted to just Netflix, or just Stan, or just Foxtel). I think micropayments may be the answer. I may be prepared to pay for good articles (after seeing a snippet) and more for better articles (not a lot though). I suggest this is better than having to subscribe to the Australian, Guardian, and others to get a good diversity and perspective (like some people subscribe to Netflix and Stan and Foxtel).

    • Micro-payments have been tried. No one’s made it work. Too fiddly perhaps? If you make the payment easy, almost unnoticeable, and password entry is seamless for all devices, then paywalls are the way to go. Maybe even micro-payments. ABC is paid by tax payer. Free to use. Other media need to charge; choose the one you trust and pay. Then enjoy.

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