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





I know real journalists don't believe in "good news" , but investigative journalism is being revitalized, thanks to big data gathering techniques. Not just in the instant fact-checking provided in the Hillary-Donald slug fest via Twitter and other sources, but in the deep-down, drill-down grunge work which real investigative journalism is.

Journalism students are now thinking about statistics as a serious course option. A flag-bearer is American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop, where a simple scroll of the home page reveals how big numbers can reveal critical, personalized stories and expose wrong-doing and corruption.

But the elusive quote, "Lies, damn lies, and statistics" popularized by Mark Twain, should never be far from the inquiring reader. And fact-checking the fact-gatherers is also a rapidly expanding form of journalism.


My former public radio colleague Patrick Madden exposed a web of government corruption in Washington DC for the capitol's NPR affiliate, WAMU, putting the station's reporting on the national map, leading to new practices in the DC City Council and helping to send a corrupt political donor to jail. The work involved Patrick and a team of interns painstakingly piecing together complex financial documents and collating them in a way the story made sense to both listeners and web users.

The website fivethirtyeight has been picked over for using political statistics in ways which some believe skew the reality, but their constantly changing "election update" analysis of the Trump/Clinton polls goes much deeper than the horse race, to demonstrate the areas in which both candidates need to pick up votes, and focusing on issues rather than personalities. This kind of data assembly would not have been possible a decade ago.

Slate produced an eye-catching assessment of gun violence over a 2-year period after the horrid murders of the children at Sandy Hook, and the project has been taken forward by the Gun Violence Archive Project. The interactive maps localize the gun control issue, giving it context and perspective, while honoring the victims.

Visually, it is all a far cry from my childhood days watching the BBC, where the meteorologist (or as we called him, "weatherman") Richard Bacon, proudly (and with hindsight, hilariously) moved his sticky British rain clouds around a static map.


It was the era of "invisible journalism", where the BBC radio newsreaders were required to wear jackets and ties lest imaginary audible standards dropped.

But as we surf the web, Mark Twain's reminder is never far behind, and a Dutch media trainer is the contemporary standard-bearer for his cynicism. Henk van Ess, a data journalism consultant with the United Nations, warns that truth "is a moving target".

Among other more complex examples, he cites his "Swiss Cheese" story, where a headline which claims it increases stomach cancer is easily debunked, because only six sufferers are involved, and when three more conform to the study it suddenly becomes an increase of 50%. The conclusion drawn is a stretch, at least. It's easy to identify holes in a flawed theory. The picture is from one of his presentations.

Similarly, too many offerings on the web are are confusing and cluttered, perhaps this one deliberately so. Somewhere in here is a map of Scotland.


Data Society's blog post highlights the dangers of misrepresenting data and offers practical steps for writers to maximize their work's impact.

Always double and triple-check your numbers, because someone will find the hole in the cheese. Don't run a map, chart, or graphic which you and your peers have trouble understanding yourselves. Test it on your biggest critic. And don't pack the illustration with superfluous information - stick to the points, attention-spans continue to diminish.








In life as in journalism - open-ended questions yield the most interesting answers

Curiosity is an essential and endearing asset, and the number of questions and the type of questions you ask of others can define who you are.

People are flattered by questions. When I embarked on my first - and hugely unsuccessful - round of dating as a teenager, a wise male friend advised me to stop trying to impress by endlessly talking about myself. "Ask them questions" he said. "Then ask a a follow-up, then another." 

But what type of questions to ask?


On the way home from school recently, I asked my son "How was your day?". The answer was perfunctory and predictable: "Good" - which hardly makes a great quote or headline. So I had to think harder.  My next was an improvement: "what was the best thing that happened today?" That solicited a long response about the soccer match at recess, which enabled me to ask follow-ups.

Questions which invite a short response, usually informational questions, are mostly easy to answer, but the answer is limited and doesn't encourage conversation. These are known as "closed questions".

"Leading questions" can be used to solicit a particular response, often the one the inquisitor desires. "Rhetorical questions" urge the interviewee to agree with the point the questioner is making (usually in speech-writing or in advocacy). The website explains these definitions in more detail.


Open-ended questions are almost always the best strategy for journalists. They are more likely to yield a longer and more personal answer, providing you a with a human perspective for your story.

"How?" or "What happened?""how did you do that....?"

or "what did you think of....?" or simply

"what happened when you.......?

Even in an adversarial interview (for instance, with a politician or a business leader trying to avoid bad publicity) open-ended questions are better.

Don't ask: "Are you going to resign?"

Do ask:- "Many people have called for your resignation. What's your reaction?"

You are inviting an answer which tells a story, which makes for a better headline, quote, sound-bite, or narrative for your feature. There is more chance this type of question will solicit honesty, or intent, background anecdotes, interesting new angles, and emotion from the interviewee.  Try it for your next reporting assignment. Then try it socially with your friends - it works there too. The goal is to get people talking, and to open up to you.

The Irish author James Stephens wrote: "We get wise asking questions, and even if these questions are not answered, we get wise, for a well-;packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell."