How can newsrooms stay cautious in an era when alternative facts and real news co-exist? Is there a way to demarcate the fake from real?
Fake news is big news and a big challenge. How does the mainstream media fight back? Not just against teenagers in Eastern Europe churning out fake stories on pseudo news pages to get ad dollars, but also against those in power, throwing the phrase at credible news organisations that infuriate them by asking informed and persistent questions?
Of course none of this is really new. Those of us working for news organisations with a global reach know the challenge of bringing facts to audiences in need.
What has changed is the nature of digital publishing that has lowered barriers to entry; so anyone can play as provider, and audiences can now easily consume the only news that fits with their own preconceptions and prejudices. The nature of algorithms and filter bubbles means you are less and less likely to encounter content, real or fake that challenges you.
So the fake news fight back is two-fold: changing the way news organisations operate, and also helping people with news literacy. According to University of Western Ontario’s research report Deception Detection for News there are five types of fake news: intentionally deceptive; jokes taken at face value (sites like The Daily Mash); large scale hoaxes (deceptions reported by reputable news sources in good faith); slanted reporting of real facts or spinning; and stories where the ‘truth’ is contentious such as ideological clashes.
News organisations also need to explain what’s driving their news. Hence you will hear news organisations talking more and more about slow news — making efforts to bring audiences news with more depth — use of data, investigation, analysis and the voice of experts to help us explain the world we are living in. Being alert to fake news goes right to the heart of a newsroom, especially in an age where anyone can be a reporter and capture footage of an event — real or fake.
It is helpful that Facebook is taking action and pushing tips developed by recognised fact-checking organisations — organisations that not many people knew existed a year ago. But again this isn’t new. When your reputation is based on accuracy — imperative for any respected news organisation — you will already be checking the authenticity of the material coming in and viewing content critically. And this is what we need people to do — get wise and ask, ‘Is this real?’ In other words, work on their news literacy.
As journalists, our starting point is asking whether this is a real piece of content or story. What’s the source? Has a photo been ‘photoshopped’ or has this video been staged? Look beyond the blue tick on Twitter and examine urls. Analyse the account, check its credibility, look at the history, its interactions and relationships with other users and websites. Check out the pictures — are there any signs of it having been manipulated? Things to look out for include differences in scale, light (is it falling on everything in the same way?), weather, has anything been added?
Bad picture quality is often used to mask ‘photoshopping’. Check if images have appeared elsewhere on the web. You can click on the camera in Google Images for a Google reverse image search. Pay attention to time — whether it’s the timeline of the story (the narrative or simply the date it was posted) or the digital footprint of any images. Are experts named in a story? Do they seem legitimate? And location — where did the story come from? Are other sources from that area reporting the same story?
Journalists are often told that if an amazing story that has landed in your inbox is too good to be true, it probably is. The same goes for fake news — if it seems unbelievable, it probably is. We aren’t complacent — audience tastes and habits are shifting as fast as the technology that serves them. But we have to draw a line and say that alternative facts are not good enough for us — and neither for our audiences.
The author is editorial director, BBC Global News and deputy director, BBC World Service Group.