Fake news is here to stay. Here’s how quality media can deal with it.

With the explosion of fake news, legacy media is finally making coverage of itself a daily occurrence, something they have traditionally been loathe to do.

Journalists prefer to cover a story, not be the story. But with news consumers distrustful of traditional sources, and with fake and biased news proliferating, media becomes the story.

But complaining about fake news is useless, and it isn’t sufficient or even advisable to rely on the technology companies or governments to try to eliminate it. It falls to news organizations themselves to take the leading role in helping citizens recognize and dismiss fake news and propaganda. There is much they can do, and, perhaps more importantly, their efforts will be welcomed by their customers.

Firstly, news consumers hate to be manipulated – all those shares and likes of fake news do not mean that everyone believes them; they anger many people, and others may be accepting them without much critical thought if they confirm what they already believe.

Many news organizations are responding to the proliferation of fake news by investing in fact-checking. But fact-checking alone isn’t enough, nor is it enough to promise to uphold quality standards, if news consumers don’t have the critical skills to determine truth from fiction themselves.

News professionals are well-placed to help them become savvy media consumers, as they’ve been trained to be skeptical and to critically assess and verify information. News consumers don’t necessarily have these skills. Helping them to assess quality journalism will not only benefit the greater good, but will likely make them more discerning and therefore loyal consumers of quality publications.

News media that are proud of what they do can no longer assume their value is self-evident. They have to make a case for their value and help their societies understand the difference between quality journalism and ersatz but entertaining fiction.

For example:

  • Tell them to judge you by what they already know, both about you as a news source and also about what they know about the world. If a news organization writes about a subject you’re familiar with and gets it right, that should assure you that it is also writing well about subjects you don’t know.
  • Encourage them to visit other reputable news sites to check multiple versions of the same story. It seems counterintuitive to send readers and viewers to the competition, but having the confidence to do so builds faith in your credibility. And help them find commentary that shows what the “other side” is saying by offering or directing them to thoughtful, contrary viewpoints. Just because readers hold a certain political view does not mean they only want stories that agree with their worldview. They also want challenging stories to round out the coverage.
  • Readers and viewers often do not pay attention to where news comes from; they can learn to pay attention to sources and become more demanding in what they believe. If someone sends them a link from a source they don’t know, they should look into it before judging its value. Don’t assume the friend that sent it to you has verified it, or that going viral is an endorsement of its credibility.
  • If mainstream media ignores it, it isn’t credible. If the pope had endorsed Donald Trump, you would have heard it on the six o’clock news, and just about everywhere else. Just because the story has thousands of shares and likes doesn’t make it true. Mainstream organizations would never ignore a story like that (if it isn’t picked up by a major news outlets – as in this case study of fake news going viral – you should assume their is a problem with it. If the story is exclusive, you need to wait and see if it is accurate.
  • Remind them that nothing is free. The culture of “information wants to be free” has given rise to stealth and stalking advertising, clickbait and the misuse of personal data. Credible news content is worth paying for. It doesn’t happen by itself, and a better understanding of how newsrooms work and the staff needed would be helpful.
  • Media needs to do a better job as well. Advertising meant to fool readers into thinking it is editorial content compromises credibility. Be transparent about all sponsorships and potential conflict of interest – and don’t be shy about pointing out potential bias elsewhere, particularly on social media. Media also would be well-served by educating themselves on the use of data, particularly polling and personal data.
  • Help readers and viewers make social sharing more useful. Helping them navigate the etiquette and practices of social networks will enrich their experience and hopefully cut down on indiscriminate sharing.

Nothing can be done for those who see the world as a vast conspiracy, but there are also many people who would benefit from guidance and most people will appreciate it. We all have an Aunt Tilda who likes and shares indiscriminately, and many others who are unaware of where stories come from and how they’re made. It is a legitimate and necessary use of news space to help improve media literacy. It’s a proactive way to deal with fake news.

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