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Fake news: A clear and present danger

I read this Facebook status recently: “Today I’m taking a break from consuming news. I’m tired of fake news.”  - Perhaps flippantly and a bit harshly said but the hint of truth at the end is one we can’t ignore. Fake news is becoming part of our daily vocabulary- our daily headache. Our newsrooms are not immune from the conversation, reality or the potential devastating impact.  

Faith Daniels

Today, it’s not just a matter of sifting through what is properly sourced and what is not, it’s about sifting through an increasing raft of complete untruths and made up stories and that which is factual and real. An increase in citizen journalism and social media platforms has intensified this problem, as the fight for exclusive and breaking content mounts. We all want to be first with a scoop or exclusive but are we always factually correct? We should be. But the need to “know everything now” era we live in has created slogans like- “wrong but not for long” when reporting on events. Absurd right? We should all hope so. Because once we adopt slogans like this as more of a rule, we will be at the point where we’ve lost the journalistic plot in my opinion.

The amount of information and access to it compound matters. Author Nassim Taleb writes, “Big data may mean more information but it also means more false information.” The situation though is not about to change. In fact, it will intensify. With this reality staring us in the face, there’s only one thing for newsrooms to do - that is to have an unambiguous strategy about sourcing, fact checking and reporting. In the era of fast paced news, we actually have to go back to basics when it comes to reporting - even when the demands of click bait and larger audiences scream at us to go with what we have. We should never reach that level.

It’s taken just a few quick years for us to get to this point, where for the ordinary person, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the fake from what is real. Seemingly okay looking news websites go up and stories are published, viewed and shared without a thought to its veracity. The most recent example is the story of the country’s overnight millionaire student. The financial aid scheme student received more than 14 million rand in her account, instead of one thousand four hundred rand. She then spent more than 8-hundred thousand rand of the money. On one weekend, the fake news reports started coming in, claiming that the pressure of it all led to the student committing suicide. The topic trended for a good few hours under the #RIP. There were two big red flags though, the site was not a reputable news site and no one else picked up on the story.

Confusion also reigned for a good few hours during the recent Knysna fires when reports were doing the rounds that trucks with aid to those affected were being hijacked. Police refuted the reports as fake but the damage was done, as these false messages spread and made an already bad situation worse. It takes time to rectify the situation, to get the proper version of the story out. By then, in many instances, the damage has been done, the audience has moved on and no one apologises. Until we reach a point where someone will have to, not just apologise, but be held accountable.

The state of affairs should have newsrooms worried, enough to abide by the rules of our craft stringently. It becomes increasingly difficult to do great work, when around us news budgets shrink and newsroom numbers dwindle. There is however no substitute for doing thorough research and information gathering. There is no substitute for the three source rule. The five W’s and the H should still guide us.

No amount of social media pressure is worth the risk you take with sloppy journalism or wanting to be part of the crowd carrying a sensational story. Although the world around us has changed to an extent where information is not ours alone, accuracy, fairness and balance cannot be negated. Reputation is everything and damaging your brand with inaccurate stories or quoting fake news will not be worth it in the end. In the absence of the ideal newsroom numbers, focused managers will have to save the day. 

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