How to be a Journalist in the age of "Fake News"

Trawling aimlessly through my Twitter feed it dawned on me that it sometimes has a lot in common with the Lancashire Witches – a group of hapless, poverty-stricken women who were hanged in 17th century northern England on the basis of rampant, indigenous misogyny, repeated gossip, allegations, rumors, a vengeful judge and the demands of the baying mob.

The more they protested their innocence, the more widespread became the myths and the gossip, and the more fact became confused and merged with the saucier fiction.

Before the Trump phenomena swept the 2016 election we could have given it a contemporary buzz-phrase such as “malicious crowd-sourcing” or “judicial trolling” but the message is the same – truth can be as elusive a commodity today as it was then. And, as we've seen recently the phrase "Fake News" doesn't come near to doing justice to some of the more repulsive stuff. Add to that the Hall of Mirrors social media has created, where subscribers only hear their own opinions echoed back, and you have a recipe which challenges democracy itself.

I may be in a minority in thinking that Mark Zuckerberg's sudden initiative to help the Facebook "community" police fake news may not be the perfect solution.

A survey reported this week by a credible organization shows a big majority of young people can't distinguish between "real"and "fake" news.

And the number of people making big money from distributing fake news is expanding daily. Thanks to NPR's "All Things Considered" for both stories.

Brittany Fong, a DC-based data visualization expert, displayed this data gathered from BuzzFeed which showed the supremacy of the right in generating fake election news, although some it came from the left, too. 

My journalism students often wonder what a journalism degree is worth these days, when any group with an Amazon discount code can buy a digital camera and drive to a riot zone to make a dangerous name for themselves on CNN. Or a bunch of guys can hang out in an apartment in LA, make terrible stuff up, plant it on social media, and make thousands from the subsequent advertising revenue.

 Pendle Hill, Lancashire, UK, where many of the "witches" were brutally murdered

Pendle Hill, Lancashire, UK, where many of the "witches" were brutally murdered

So we came up with a list of attributes which might separate “real” journalists from the mob. I’m sure readers can add to the list.

Real journalists can distinguish their work and bring success to their organizations:-

  • By acquiring ALL the skills necessary to create and contribute to all types of platforms
  • By taking careful notes and recordings and keeping them
  • By being first hand witnesses to events, vigorously questioning any derivative versions
  • By standing for truth, accuracy and diversity before speed
  • By building credibility as tellers of significant stories
  • By having trusted, first-hand sources and extensive contacts
  • By building expertise, knowledge and experience in chosen beats
  • By rising above the “noise” to report fact, not rumor or hearsay
  • By remaining neutral and emotionally detached from their subject

It may seem a quaint notion, but is it time to restore credibility to the profession by having a nationally (or internationally) recognized qualification as a journalist? We could let Facebook (and others) off the hook, if they added a "credibility" badge to our stories.

News organizations who only employed card-holders, and genuine freelancers, could increase their credibility and enhance their reputation as trust-worthy custodians of truth and reliability.

Call me old-fashioned? The Lancashire Witches could have done with some independent observers who sought the truth. The first draft of history prevailed then, as it will today. But with all the tools of discovery and dissemination of news now at our disposal, shouldn’t we be doing more to get it right, especially since it's been 4-hundred years?

Mark McDonald

Birkdale Media - Digital and Broadcast Media and Speech Coaching

November 2016