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Journalism, ‘Fake News’ & Disinformation

 

 

 

Handbook for Journalism Education and Training

UNESCO Series on Journalism Education

Making sure news is accurate, being accountable for it if it is not accurate, being transparent about the source of stories and information, standing up to governments, pressure groups, commercial interests, the police, if they intimidate, threaten or censor you. Protecting your sources against arrest and disclosure. Knowing when you have a strong enough public interest defence to break the law and being prepared to go to jail to defend your story and sources. Knowing when it is unethical to publish something. Balancing individual rights to privacy with the broader right of the public interest

Disinformation and misinformation are both different to (quality) journalism which complies with professional standards and ethics. At the same time they are also different to cases of weak journalism that falls short of its own promise. Problematic journalism includes, for example, ongoing (and uncorrected) errors that arise from poor research or sloppy verification. It includes sensationalising that exaggerates for effect, and hyper-partisan selection of facts at the expense of fairness.

But this not to assume an ideal of journalism that somehow transcends all embedded narratives and points of view, with sub-standard journalism being coloured by ideology. Rather it is to signal all journalism contains narratives, and that the problem with sub-standard journalism is not the existence of narratives, but poor professionalism. This is why weak journalism is still not the same as disinformation or misformation.

Nevertheless, poor quality journalism sometimes allows disinformation and misinformation to originate in or leak into the real news system. But the causes and remedies for weak journalism are different to the case of disinformation and

misinformation. At the same time, it is evident that strong ethical journalism is needed as an alternative, and antidote, to the contamination of the information environment and the spill-over effect of tarnishing of news more broadly.

Today, journalists are not just bystanders watching an evolving avalanche of disinformation and misinformation. They find themselves in its pathway too4. This means that:

ɒ journalism faces the risk of being drowned out by the cacophony;

ɒ journalists risk being manipulated by actors who go beyond the ethics of public relations by attempting to mislead or corrupt journalists into spreading disinformation5;

ɒ journalists as communicators who work in the service of truth, including “inconvenient truths”, can find themselves becoming a target of lies, rumours and hoaxes designed to intimidate and discredit them and their journalism, especially when their work threatens to expose those who are commissioning or committing disinformation6.

In addition, journalists need to recognise that while the major arena of disinformation is social media, powerful actors today are instrumentalising ‘fake news’ concerns to clamp down on the genuine news media. New and stringent laws are scapegoating news institutions as if they were the originators, or lumping them into broad new regulations which restrict all communications platforms and activities indiscriminately.

Such regulations also often have insufficient alignment to the international principles requiring that limitations on expression should be demonstrably necessary, proportional and for legitimate purpose. Their effect, even if not always the intention, is to make genuine news media subject to a “ministry of truth” with the power to suppress information for purely political reasons.

all content – including journalism. In this scenario, people are then likely to take as credible whatever content is endorsed by their social networks, and which corresponds with their hearts – but leaves out engagement with their heads. We can already see

the negative impacts of this on public beliefs about health, science, intercultural understanding and the status of authentic expertise.

This impact on the public is also especially concerning for elections, and to the very idea of democracy as a human right. What disinformation seeks, particularly during a poll, is not necessarily to convince the public to believe that its content is true, but to impact on agenda setting (on what people think is important) and to muddy the informational waters in order to weaken rationality factors in people’s voting choices7. Likewise, the issues of migration, climate change and others can be highly impacted by uncertainty resulting from disinformation and misinformation.

These dangers are why confronting the rise of ‘fake news’ head-on is an imperative for journalism and journalism education. At the same time, the threats also constitute an opportunity to double down on demonstrating the value of news media. They provide a chance to underline in professional practice the distinctiveness of delivering verifiable information and informed comment in the public interest8.

What journalism needs to do

In this context, it is a time for news media to tack more closely to professional standards and ethics, to eschew the publishing of unchecked information, and to take a distance from information which may interest some of the public but which is not in the public interest.

This publication is therefore also a timely reminder that all news institutions, and journalists whatever their political leanings, should avoid inadvertently and uncritically spreading disinformation and misinformation. In much news media today, the elimination of positions providing internal fact checking has to an extent led to the function now being assumed by the “fifth estate” of bloggers and other external actors who call out mistakes made by journalists – though after they are already disseminated.

This emergent phenomenon can be welcomed by news media as reinforcing society’s interest in verifiable information. Journalists should bring the work of independent fact-checking groups to larger audiences. But they should know that where external actors demonstrate systemic failure in a given news outlet, this puts a question mark over at least that institution’s brand as a professional source of news. The media should be careful that external post-publication corrections do not become a substitute for internal processes of quality control. Journalists have to do better and “get it right” in the first place, or forfeit the possibility of a society to have believable media.

In sum, a game of catch-up corrections by external watchdogs is not one in which journalism is a winner. Journalists cannot leave it to fact-checking organisations to do the journalistic work of verifying questionable claims that are presented by sources (no matter whether such claims are reported in the media, or whether they bypass journalism and appear directly in social media). The ability of news practitioners to go beyond “he said, she said” journalism, and to investigate the veracity of claims made by those being covered has to be improved.

Journalism also needs to proactively detect and uncover new cases and forms of disinformation. This is mission critical for the news media, and it represents an alternative to regulatory approaches to ‘fake news’. As an immediate response to a burning and damaging issue, it complements and strengthens more medium-term strategies such as media and information literacy which empower audiences to distinguish what is news, disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation is a hot story, and strong coverage of it will strengthen journalism’s service to society.

“(We are) Alarmed at instances in which public authorities denigrate, intimidate and threaten the media, including by stating that the media is “the opposition” or is “lying” and has a hidden political agenda, which increases the risk of threats and violence against journalists, undermines public trust and confidence in journalism as a public watchdog, and may mislead the public by blurring the lines between disinformation and media products containing independently verifiable facts.”

This handbook therefore is a call to action. It is also an encouragement for journalists to engage in societal dialogue about how people at large decide on credibility and why some of them share unverified information. As with the news media, for journalism schools and their students, along with media trainers and their learners, this is a major opportunity for strong civic engagement with audiences. As an example, ‘crowd-sourcing’ is essential if media are to uncover and report on beneath-the-radar disinformation that is spread on social messaging or email.

In today’s context of disinformation and misinformation, the ultimate jeopardy is not unjustifiable regulation of journalism, but that publics may come to disbelieve all content – including journalism. In this scenario, people are then likely to take as credible whatever content is endorsed by their social networks, and which corresponds with their hearts – but leaves out engagement with their heads. We can already see

the negative impacts of this on public beliefs about health, science, intercultural understanding and the status of authentic expertise.

This impact on the public is also especially concerning for elections, and to the very idea of democracy as a human right. What disinformation seeks, particularly during a poll, is not necessarily to convince the public to believe that its content is true, but to impact on agenda setting (on what people think is important) and to muddy the informational waters in order to weaken rationality factors in people’s voting choices7. Likewise, the issues of migration, climate change and others can be highly impacted by uncertainty resulting from disinformation and misinformation.

These dangers are why confronting the rise of ‘fake news’ head-on is an imperative for journalism and journalism education. At the same time, the threats also constitute an opportunity to double down on demonstrating the value of news media. They provide a chance to underline in professional practice the distinctiveness of delivering verifiable information and informed comment in the public interest.

Full Text of Handbook:  https://en.unesco.org/fightfakenews

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