When it comes to fake news, journalists only have themselves to blame
Decades of being loose with the truth have left the media open to attacks from Trump and his ilk
I CAME across an interesting piece of fake news the other day.
“Bludgers disgrace: Booze drugs dole rort” went the headline, followed by a kicker: “Exclusive: Crooked doctors helping layabouts get out of finding a job”.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: I should avoid those dodgy Russian based clickbait trawling news websites. They’re like bad porn, a few moments of grubby pleasure followed by hours of guilty regret.
But what was interesting is not so much the obvious fakery of the story — which is pretty much par for the course — but the source.
No, it wasn’t in my Facebook feed from some obscure publication I’d never come across before.
It was from the front page of Australia’s second-largest selling newspaper.
And herein lies the problem for journalists and established media organisations fighting a losing battle against fake news and the damage it is doing to their profession.
Sadly, much of that damage is self-inflicted following decades of institutional arrogance, minimal adherence to ethical standards and a loose relationship to the truth.
I don’t want to pick on a single publication, but that one story in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph illustrates why the media’s credibility is so low that fake news accusations can get traction.
It was based on a spurious claim, since disproved in a reprimand by the Australian Press Council. Yet the falsity of the story did no harm to its author, Simon Benson, who has since gone on to become the national affairs editor of The Australian.
MAKE no mistake, fake news is the biggest threat to journalism today. Bigger than the preponderance of free sites on the internet, bigger than the steady drift of advertising revenue to Facebook and Google. Fake news undermines the sense of trust in journalists. And without trust, us journalists have got nothing.
But as that front page beat-up from the Daily Tele shows, journalists really only have themselves to blame for creating an environment that is loose with the truth, that selectively uses “facts”, and allows opinion and editorial bias to over-ride balance and objectivity.
Unless journalists can get their own house in order, then they have no credible defence against fake news. And the evidence to date suggests the horse has already bolted.
So when fake news threatens their very existence, journalists need to ask themselves was it really worth it to behave so irresponsibly when they had so much power and prestige. And is there any way of coming back from this precipice?
Donald Trump uses the term fake news to deride any piece of journalism he doesn’t like, even when it comes from the most revered and respected media outlets in the world, with decades of tradition of strong, independent and trustworthy reporting behind them.
To anyone who has studied the dictators of the 20th century, Trump’s declaration of war on independent media is not new but there is a certain audacity to them when the US constitution enshrines the notion of a free speech and free press.
Other populist demagogues have picked up on Trump’s lead by routinely bandying around the phrase fake news at stories that question their integrity or their policies. In an Orwellian attempt at fudging reality, a junior minister in the Turnbull government, Matt Canavan, earlier this year sought to describe a series of reports by the ABC about the environmentally contentious Adani coal mine as fake news.
Alongside fake news, we also have “alternative facts’ appears to be a phrase coined by Trump’s communications adviser, Kellyanne Conway, to describe made up assertions by his administration in the face of factual evidence.
Unless journalists can get their own house in order, then they have no credible defence against fake news.
There is fake news and there is fake news. There is the “fake news” that Trump attempts to impugn The New York Times, CNN and others with, but generally they are simply reporting the uncomfortable truth.
There is the fake news generated by “false balance” — the veneer of objectivity that insists that two sides must be given to every story, even if one side is plainly wrong or untrue. Look at the climate change and vaccination debates for two examples of the damage caused by false balance.
There is the liberal reinterpretation of facts fake news as practised by ultra-partisan media outlets like Breitbart and Fox News.
And there is the plain made up stories of the “Hillary Clinton is the queen bee of a pedophile ring” genre.
Claims and counter-claims of fake news are so commonplace that you could be forgiven it has only been around since the invention of Facebook.
It’s true that the ease of using a WordPress template to set up what appears to be a news organisation on the internet has made fake news more prevalent.
So has Facebook, which has created ready-made audiences of people willing to feast on a diet of one-sided news that fits their own prejudices, whether it’s true or not. It’s … the vibe.
It is more difficult for journalists to pursue truth when they are considerably outnumbered by public relations spivs; and the modern day distrust of experts has also created an environment in which fake news can prosper.
But fake news is not a recent development. It’s as old as the news business itself, and for its rise, journalists only have themselves to blame.
DURING my time in the newsroom of a mass-circulation tabloid, I sat at a desk across from a hack who was much beloved by the senior editors for his ability to conjure a story out of nothing, always to suit a particular editorial bias.
I recall one time, on the eve of a mass political protest through the streets of Melbourne, he produced a page three lead and picture story about an alleged “bloc’ of anarchists preparing to wreak violence and havoc in the city centre.
He could barely contain his glee as he told us how he’d convinced a couple of friends to cover their faces with black handkerchiefs and pretend to be members of this fictional group to pose for a photograph to hold up his story.
And then there was the editor who had a long and growing “hate list” of celebrities he despised and about who he would allow virtually anything to be published, as long as it was damaging to those on the list.
Many point the finger at Rupert Murdoch and the red-topped tabloids. And certainly, The Sun, particularly under the editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie, was the home of fake news in the 1980s.
That single story, fed to the paper by the corrupt south Yorkshire police desperate to cover up their own incompetence, resulted in a Merseyside boycott of The Sun which continues to this day.
We could point to any number of stories in the late, not lamented, News of The World.
On the small screen, Murdoch’s Fox News invented a formula of fake news that has since been much imitated.
But it would be unfair to blame Murdoch alone for the collapse of journalistic credibility.
As Mark Day remarked in a recent column in The Australian, for decades Sydney’s afternoon tabloids pushed the boundaries of fake news with beat ups, exaggerations and fiction as they waged a bitter circulation war.
Murdoch’s main contemporary rival, The Daily Mail, is so synonymous with fake news it was recently banned by Wikipedia for being an ‘unreliable source’.
Mass market women’s magazines will splash their covers with made up stories about Brangelina or Will&Kate, always attributed to anonymous “sources”. Tabloid current affairs TV shows seem immune to the regular exposure of their fakery.
But even renowned publications like The New York Times have allowed fake news to appear on their pages.
The evidence used to justify George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was largely based on falsified stories published by the Times. It later turned out these stories were based on mistruths passed onto the Times’ reporters by “sources” inside Bush’s White House and Iraqi exiles with an interest in seeing Sadaam Hussein ousted.
British newspapers regurgitated the same lies from Tony Blair.
Hundreds of thousands died as a result of the invasion, but never mind.
The preponderance of fake news has got worse as the profit and loss sheets of established mastheads have turned red. Many publications with reputations steeped in quality journalism have turned to clickbait in desperation, allowing fake news to spread its insidious ways into modern “churnalism”.
In doing so, the media are failing in their number one duty: to report honestly, factually, responsibly.
JUST in case it wasn’t clear already, my gripe isn’t with journalism. Far from it. It’s with bad journalism.
With publishers only paying lip service to the concept of truth through the weak self-regulation of bodies like the Press Council, the only remaining certification of reputable journalism is the MEAA’s code of ethics.
But these only apply to journalists who are MEAA members, and even then, how many have actually read them?
And how do they resist the pressures to produce fake news when up the management chain the imperative is to generate website clicks whatever the cost?
Now I happen to believe most journalists are actually decent people, conscious of the ethical responsibility they have to report the truth and the fragile grip they have on the public’s trust.
Most journalists would rather eat their own vomit than engage in the types of fraudulent practices I’ve described.
It’s outrageous for Trump to accuse The New York Times or CNN of fake news every time they get under his skin with another revelation about the incompetence and corruption of his administration.
They are doing what we expect of proper journalists: holding those in power to account.
But after decades of beat ups, sensationalism, intrusions on people’s privacy, cash for comment and the rest, is it really any surprise that the public can no longer tell the difference between Breitbart and The Washington Post?
Ethical journalists have been fighting a losing battle against managers who are solely focussed on circulation or audience share and couldn’t give a stuff about trivial things like truth and facts; against ambitious hacks who are praised and promoted for unethical behaviour; and against shrinking and under-resourced newsrooms which make it impossible to do their jobs properly.
So every time Trump accuses the press of fake news, it stings because we all know there is a kernel of truth in what he is saying.
The mainstream media have abused the trust of the public. Yes, even The New York Times, as the Iraq War example illustrates.
It’s a long way back from here for journalists, and the media can’t begin the fightback against fake news until they clean up their own backyards.