How to tell if you have a “fake news” problem in your newsroom

We live in an age where a lot of false — but entertaining — information flies around the internet. How your newsroom handles it says a lot about you as an organisation…

There’s a fascinating piece on the Guardian website tonight: “How newsroom pressure is letting fake stories on to the web

In some senses, it was ever thus. I don’t believe Freddie Starr ever really ate anybody’s hamster, and one of my favourite ever news pamphlets is from 1760 and discusses the genuine finding of mermaids off the coast of Scotland. Chinny reckon.

The topic was also, of course, brilliantly tackled by Nick Davies in “Flat Earth News” back in 2008.

But today’s Guardian piece has some interesting first-hand, if anonymous, accounts of the pressure in a modern newsroom of dealing with trying to get #NUMBERS in a world of the Facebook algorithm and Vice and BuzzFeed and Twitter and Snapchat and all the other wonders of wonders in our age.

“You have an editor breathing down your neck and you have to meet your targets. There are some very young and excited journalists out there. If you do a story and it goes viral, it is very exciting. But big bosses are trying to meet targets. There are some young journalists on the market who are inexperienced and who will not do those checks. So much news that is reported online happens online. There is no need to get out and doorstep someone. You just sit at your desk and do it and, because it is so immediate, you are going to take that risk. Editors will say, ‘The BBC got that six seconds before we did.’”

Another anonymously told the Guardian:

“There is definitely a pressure to churn out stories, including dubious ones, in order to get clicks, because they equal money. At my former employer in particular, the pressure was on due to the limited resources. That made the environment quite horrible to work in.”

Now an editor breathing down your neck is not a new thing in the newsroom, either.

However, editors breathing down your neck with Chartbeat up on the wall looming down large for all to see is a different phenomena altogether.

I still think it comes down to this. As my colleague Chris Moran says: “Don’t mindlessly let the data lead you to places you don’t want to go. We’re editors, not algorithms.”

Look around you anywhere today. You’ll spot human beings fiddling with their phones virtually every second of the day when they don’t have a specific thing to do. Our audience are constantly looking for things that entertain them or distract them.

I personally think that fun viral news has a place on websites — but that tone and presentation are everything. I remember writing some opening paragraph for UsVsTh3m or the Mirror along the lines of “Here’s the best probably-not-true-but-very-well-written-and-it-amused-us thing we’ve seen on Reddit today”

I think it is fine to frame these things as “Someone posted this to the internet, and loads of people are chatting about it. It’s interesting. You might like it.” Not everybody sits in an office frantically pressing refresh on Twitter or Reddit all day. Packaging up interesting things from there isn’t hugely different to me from writing up “Here’s the telly we reckon you should watch tonight.” And people read them.

But I don’t think it is fine to frame these things as “We saw this on the internet and we are going to say it actually happened without fact-checking it.”

There are far too many UK news outlets for my liking at the moment not caring enough about the way they present these kinds of stories. BuzzFeed cops a lot of flak but “Someone posted this to Tumblr and the internet is losing its freaking mind” is a more honest headline than “Person X did Thing Y in Location Z and this actually happened” when you haven’t independently verified any of those things as a fact.

And you need to know why you are doing it. Maybe you are trying to debunk a story that is doing the rounds. Maybe something is making you laugh and you want to share the laughs (while linking to the serious original research too).

Maybe you are trying to find a different twist on a big story. Our re-write and re-presentation of a Reddit comment about offshore banking got nearly half a million page views, and importantly, 6% of those visits led the reader to click on another rather more serious Panama Papers piece. It’s not Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, and it’s maybe not something the Guardian would have done two years ago, but it possibly got people to detailed stories they wouldn’t have read otherwise.

When writing for the social web I always insist it is vital to know “Who is going to share this article, and why will they share it?”

And there’s an important third part of that equation which maybe enough people aren’t thinking about in UK newsrooms— “Why do we want them to share OUR version of this story?“

If your answer to that question is purely about #NUMBERS, you’ve probably got a fake news problem in your newsroom.

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