As an independent and well respected public relations agency we’re right behind the newspaper industry’s campaign to fight fake news. Its insidious practice is poisoning everything we read, see and hear.
Ok, it’s a fact that PR companies are often accused of putting too much spin on stories. And let’s be honest it is our job to present a company in its best light. That’s what we’re paid for.
But there’s a world of difference between presenting often good, positive information on behalf of a client and, in the world of fake news, blatantly misleading people with half truths or even worse outright lies. As an agency we pride ourselves in the relentless pursuit of the facts. As former journalists the truth was a cornerstone of our training and careers. 30 years on that commitment has never wavered. I like to think that’s one of the main reasons our clients value our service so highly. Integrity and credibility.
That said. Let’s not be naive. Journalists (and PR professionals) are, to quote a popular tune, only human after all and make mistakes. But that doesn’t make it institutional. In a double page spread in the Southern Daily Echo, the headline reads: Fighting flood of fake news.” A great headline complete with the obligatory alliteration but they make no bones about where they stand.
I have professionally known Gordon Stutter the newly appointed editor, for many years. He’s old school which means he will instil in his team the essential quality of accuracy by checking the facts and where possible seeking an attributable quote.
So where is the root of this particular evil?
The paper’s article is unequivocal and I quote: “More frequently it is unsubstantiated rumour indiscriminately posted on social media sites which rapidly gains credence, to the distress of those featured in it and the alarm of all those who read it. Repetition through “shares” and “likes” adds an undeserved authority. Comment, unlabelled as such, masquerades as truth; satire is confused with reality.
“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels…’’
And there we have it. While social media is with us to stay – and for the most part can really enrich our lives and that of our clients – we must remain vigilant to so called “citizen journalism” where everyone becomes a reporter.
I’m not for saying for one minute that citizen journalism isn’t to be embraced and hasn’t transformed the way we consume news, and that it hasn’t been essential in shining a light on some of the world’s great atrocities. But, in my opinion, it should be treated with caution and seen as contributing to the picture rather than being the whole picture. And where possible it should be verified and cross checked.
My final thought. Experienced journalists, by and large, are highly skilled professionals who have an excellent grasp of the language and, having been round the block a few times, are sceptical by nature which generally means they’re not easily duped. Citizen journalists are, in this context, amateurs. Well intentioned for the most part but amateurs nevertheless. I worry about where this might end – “citizen doctors,” “citizen dentists.” We have a “citizen politician” in the White House. And look how that’s going… Ah yes, he’s the one who has put the very concept of fake news into the spotlight. So maybe he’s not all that bad after all.