It’s real: in defence of journalism

“It’s fake, it’s fake!” Consistent accusations of fake news in social and political circles has instigated debate as to what this charge means. Tim Harford, journalist at the Financial Times defines fake news as ‘an entirely fabricated report presenting itself as a news story.’ Many media houses, including Facebook, are repeatedly defending themselves against the plaintiff. Facebook has announced a new tool that will fact check posted stories in a bid to quell complaints that it is an engine of fake news, particularly since the American election. However, what are the effects of these allegations on journalists?

Parallels were recently drawn between Trump and Sports Direct when the company lashed out at City AM for publishing Pirc’s data on company pay, labelling the news as fake. Journalism appears to be under attack from all corners, and witnessing such aggressive confrontation compelled me to boast the industry’s worth.

I play the Guardian’s game on its Instagram story, where followers can guess the week’s fake and true news. Last week I was caught out, having believed in the possibility that a microwave could function as a spying device. While this amused me, I began to contemplate the media landscape today, and consider its condition.

To give myself perspective in developing a stance to fake news, I decided to visit an exhibition called ‘Paper’. After reading about it in the Evening Standard, I wanted to immerse myself in the subjective and remind myself of why editorial is so cherished. The truth is, consumers value the lens of the journalist. Their insight and analysis gives us the basis on which to decide, form an opinion and to reinterpret. This is also what artist Fred Tomaselli does, adding colour and opinion in a series of interventions on former front pages of The New York Times.

Reflecting on my experience, two themes stood out for me as critical. The first was obvious – what is the difference between reality and perception, and who decides? Looking at the below image, what do you see?


Image: Fred Tomaselli, Thursday, May 12, 2011 (2016) ©

It shows a trader reduced to anatomical drawing, struggling to hide secrets under the spotlight. The picture reminded me of the role papers played in informing us about the scandals of insider trading. Other pieces tested me for a while longer. One photo shows Putin arriving in St Petersburg, stepping off his helicopter to watch a military parade. Simultaneously, three members of punk band, Pussy Riot, were jailed for violating social order. I recall feelings of intense doubt, of disbelief that three women were going to prison for political activism, a privilege that makes us treasure and be proud of our liberal society. Protecting this privilege is important, and calls from Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education and skills to educate children on how to think critically about information are sensible.

Beyond the emotive, the exhibition asks us to consider the medium of print. Circulation is in decline. We lost the Independent, the New Day shut just nine weeks after launching, and Sport magazine closed after 10 years of print last month. In contrast, 2017 observed the Metro is becoming the most read daily newspaper, surpassing The Sun and The Daily Mail. Financial Times analysis argues the Metro’s evasion of political allegiance and unbiased reporting as a principal reason.

While there are endless positives to digital, it has fundamentally changed industry operation. It has brought an almost burdensome reliance on advertising revenue for papers, who must change business models to lessen the impact of cost cutting and satisfy consumer appetite for shareable, online content.

Despite this, there remains a convincing case for print. Papers continue to set the agenda and get the nation talking. The BBC publishes a daily round up of the headlines called ‘what the papers say’, and stories are discussed and scrutinised on the radio and TV. In PR, this value is well understood, and there’s been no such decline in client thirst for coverage in a newspaper.

The two themes in Tomaselli’s exhibition are indicative of the media landscape today. I conclude that the fake news phenomenon is a threat to journalism, as it discourages us from considering another perspective. While simultaneously defending their reporting rights, papers are overhauling operations to deliver a seamless experience across digital and print. Now more than ever, we must enshrine the value of journalism as a mechanic of free speech and public opinion.

Chris in our Corporate Business Communications team