The fight against fakery

By Matt Gray

1st September 2017

The Daily Telegraph launched its latest brand campaign this week, urging readers to remember that “Words are powerful. Choose them well.” A cover wrap announcing the campaign led the paper’s Tuesday edition, with editor Chris Evans writing that in the modern world “there is such a tangle of factual material and strong opinion that it is hard to see the woods for the trees”.

The accompanying TV spot, which ran during the much-anticipated season finale of Game of Thrones, paired evocative images from history alongside the words with which we have naturally come to associate them: Martin Luther King’s “dream”, mankind’s “leap” during the moon landings, and most recently, the “fake” news associated with the Trump presidency. Each is a reminder of the transformational influence that language has when tied to current affairs, and the lasting historical impact it can leave.

It’s a timely message, and one the communications profession is naturally understanding of. After all, we earn our living precisely by communicating our client’s messages through words, images and campaigns that are painstakingly designed to resonate in the minds of both press and public.

Yet we are also inherently aware of the ethical bounds upon us to use these tools of influence responsibly. A moral PR practitioner knows that their messaging must be in the true public interest, and that they must not in no way disseminate false or misleading information. These rules are rightly written in stone within the PRCA’s Code of Conduct.

As experts in media intelligence, Eulogites are quick to spot when a story is not abiding by these guidelines, whether through a process of selective editing or just outright deception. However, for those who don’t spend their days assessing and analysing the news, picking out the fake news from the real can be a challenging task.

The Telegraph’s campaign is welcome in the way it plants a seed of healthy scepticism in the minds of readers, and it is by no means the only publication attempting to cut through the noise made by fakery.

The BBC’s Reality Check team has been active since January, and over the course of the year has become a core part of the news desk. It’s ability to react swiftly to the contemporary news agenda allows it to both debunk fake stories and add valuable analysis what is currently breaking. Over the last week alone its has shone a light on the financial factors muddying the waters of Brexit negotiating stances, and assessed the hard evidence behind a perpetually raging debate in politics and on social media, the pay gap between chief executives and the average worker.

Both the BBC and The Telegraph, as well as other traditional news sources, can trade on the commodity of reader trust, built through a long heritage of quality journalism. The Times, for example, has been in print since 1785, and last year launched its own high profile brand campaign with the tagline “Know your Times”. The message that emanates is clear: traditional publications can be trusted to give the full story, with the implication therefore following that the new media – consisting of social media and upstart online news sites – are to be met with large doses of disbelief.

The new media is the natural adversary of the printed press, having gradually pilfered the audiences and revenue that they had, until recently, enjoyed for centuries. It’s unsurprising then that the last year has seen the increasingly regular publication of articles placing special blame on the Facebook-Google duopoly for their facilitation in the rise of fake news, and bemoaning their lethargy in solving the problem. The Press Gazette, meanwhile, has gone even further, launching its campaign to “stop Google and Facebook destroying journalism.”

A key reason for such criticism is a failure of new media companies to recognise themselves as being media organisations in the first place. Facebook plays an especially large role in the way the public consumes news, yet Mark Zuckerberg has only ever gone as far to say his platform is “not a traditional media company”, severely understating the way people use it to share, like and comment upon often unregulated news articles.

Despite this belligerence, the new media has made certain strides to improve its reputation. In a frenzy of recent activity Facebook has partnered with fact-checkers Snope and Politifact, and has even taken out full page newspaper ads around the world with guidelines on spotting false stories. Most importantly of all, it has made efforts to strangle the economic incentives behind fake news generation by blocking pages that distribute falsities from advertising on the platform.

Even younger mediums, crucially with younger and potentially more impressionable audiences, are also picking up the mantle. In an interview with the BBC, Nick Bell, vice president of content at Snap, revealed that Snapchat employs a team of journalists who are on hand to fact check content, in some cases even liaising with the police to verify whether videos and images are as they appear.

The efforts from all corners of the media to keep readers factually informed are certainly encouraging, and what is more encouraging still is that an appetite for quality, accurate journalism remains at large within the public. Sales of magazines such as The Economist, The Week and the New Statesmen are growing, appealing to readers by positioning their analytical style as an “antidote” to the 21st Century soft news landscape.

With much less acclaim than The Telegraph’s campaign launch, the i has also this week been addressing the issue of journalism’s future by printing the letters of readers reacting to its announced price rise. In amongst quibbles about crosswords and page lengths, what emerges most clearly from the responses is a widespread desire for balanced, quality coverage. Journalists and communications professionals alike should take heart from this, and keep in mind that no matter how media becomes consumed in the future, integrity and trust will always be valued by the news reading public.