What can we do about misinformation and the readers’ lack of trust?

By Diego Salazar / Illustration Ximena González

In the latest edition of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), published by the School of Journalism at the University of Columbia and dedicated to how the public views the press (How they see us: what the press looks like from the outside –and what we misread about ourselves, March, 2019), the publication’s director, Kyle Pope, begins the article which opens the review by lamenting the way in which a significant portion of the North American press has reacted to the many threats it faces.

To the many invectives uttered by President Trump – enthusiastically copied by his imitators on both sides of the political spectrum in a variety of countries including Spain, Mexico, Peru and Brazil –, which have condemned the critical press and journalists as “enemies of the people”, as well as the constant harassment on social media (particularly virulent when it comes to female journalists), in recent months one can add the massive firing of journalists from organizations which had, it seemed, been able to adapt to a sustainable business model with the digital press. Two media organizations stand out negatively in this sense at the beginning of 2019: Vice fired about 250 people in February, about 10% of its staff around the world, while Buzzfeed, which had been considered one of the most important media organizations in the digital world, fired up to 220 of its workers, entailing the closure of Buzzfeed Spain and Buzzfeed Mexico, among others.

How has the rest of the press reacted to this threatening environment? Not very cleverly, according to Kyle Pope. “On social media and in conversations over beer the bunker mentality has strengthened and journalists have started to belittle and stop listening to those who express their disapproval of them (…) People increasingly accept this world seemingly divided in two: us and them, fact versus fantasy, the lucid few against the enraged masses. We journalists think we know which side we’re on – that of facts and lucidity – but unfortunately we’re forgetting how much we contributed to this division. How we contributed to the deterioration of our own industry and the discrediting of our profession.

A corporate mentality, self-absorption and the search for sacrificial lambs aren’t new problems for journalists, as the director of the CJR notes, but the situation of permanent crisis in which our industry has existed for some time, has exacerbated these tendencies. It is, of course, perfectly understandable that the precariousness and the constant threat under which many journalists work nowadays makes us find comfort in self-pity and in the demonization of external “enemies” but it would probably be better if we were to start by cleaning out our own house and dealing with problems in our own work.

As the Spanish journalist Delia Rodriguez wrote in a an article that I’ve quoted from on several occasions, “[The internet] has brought out the worst in the media, which is today transformed into a polluting industry that throws toxic waste at society, but instead of contaminating drinking water it does it with the ideas that we breathe.” There’s almost no media organization writing in our Spanish which wouldn’t, in all honesty, recognize itself in those words, even though we’re hard pushed to admit as much.

“(…) The Spanish journalist Delia Rodriguéz wrote: ‘[the internet] has brought the worst out in the media, which is today transformed into a polluting industry that throws toxic waste at society, but instead of contaminating drinking water it does it with the ideas that we breathe’”.

In this sense it is striking the effort that journalists make to define so-called fake news (better call this “misinformation”; more of this in a moment) as a phenomenon alien to our publications, a sort of meteorite that hit us from outer space without us having done anything to provoke it.

Since the journalist and specialist in date verification Craig Silverman in November 2016 gave wings to the term “fake news” in an article he wrote for Buzzfeed in which he described how hundreds of media sites managed by adolescents in Macedonia were earning thousands of dollars publishing fake articles about the US presidential election, “fake news” has been a media obsession. The terms has changed and assumed multiple meanings until, thanks to Trump’s twitter addiction it has been completely drained of any and all meaning. In the words of the US president false information is anything that goes against his interests. In order to accurately talk about the deliberate publication of false or misleading information it’s better to use the term “misinformation”. (Network Propaganda. Benkler, Faris y Roberts, Oxford University Press, 2018). But, we should first come clean and be honest about our own responsibility in its dissemination.

Not long ago I was talking with the director of a newspaper in a country where I’d been invited to give a speech about misinformation and digital media. In preparation I read some local media to get an idea of how local journalists were working. I was surprised – although not really that surprised – to discover that the so-called fake news was always something that happened somewhere else, that in those media outlets with declining sales where every journalist was now doing the job of three, nobody ever made mistakes, nobody ever wrote news that’d then have to be corrected from cover to cover, that everyone checked everything and they only published bullet-proof information.

The most notable example was the director I mentioned above telling me about the attention to detail in his publications while I looked over his shoulder and saw a small pile of old numbers of the magazine where there was, every day, a dubious front page headline – a phrase between quotation marks, a fact taken out of context, a flagrant lie – about a recent ex-president who just happened to be one of the newspaper’s major shareholders.

As Delia Rodriguéz wrote in the article I quoted above, we journalists, in our solipsism seem to forget that “everything has an author, someone who is guilty of taking on a subject, hands that have written something even if they didn’t sign it”. It’s the people whom we used to call “readers” and whom we now refer to as our “audience”, who haven’t forgotten this, and the lack of trust they have in us now is testament to this. According to the 2018 edition of Latinobarómetro, on average 44% of people polled in countries across the region trust the media. The cases of El Salvador (24%,) Mexico (35%), Guatemala (36%) and Chile (38%) are particularly bloody. Just by way of comparison, an average of 64% of the population trusts the Catholic Church, which, as we all know, isn’t exactly having a great moment. If the public places more trust in an institution tarnished by some of the most serious scandals of our age, perhaps we should take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves how this can be possible.

This loss of trust, added to the precarious state of our industry, could suggest that we journalists can do little to face a disbelieving public that views us with suspicion and doesn’t seem willing to guarantee our survival. But, in reality, however tempting it is to succumb to a fatalistic version of events, there is a lot that we can do.

We can start by doing our work well. Because the divulgence of any information, including by omission or ignorance, actually has a team of journalists behind it who are not doing their work as they should be. Either because they’re lying deliberately or because they don’t have the time to check the information they’re disseminating. In both cases the responsibility falls on whoever is repeating the lie.

“Even though trust in the media has fallen, the press still has an enormous power of amplification. We might no longer be the arbiters of what enters the public sphere of discussion, but we do still have the spotlights and the loudspeakers in our grasp”. Because of this, and despite the fact that many seem to have forgotten it, we have a greater responsibility than other content producers who are swarming around the web. The researcher Danah Boyd put it well when she spoke at a conference in September 2018: “Not all media outlets are equal. Yes, a blog post can go viral, but when an important organ of the press decides to cover a story which until that moment had only received the oxygen of publicity from some bloggers, then the message is amplified and reaches a much larger audience. The decisions taken by the traditional media outlets are important. Even in a world dominated by social media. What these media organizations choose to amplify profoundly influences what people talk about, share or investigate on their own.” We journalists and the media have a responsibility to keep the public discussion free from the toxic waste and misinformation.

Because misinformation in essence always benefits someone other the public whom we serve. Whether that’s because there are economic or political interests behind it, deliberately falsified information on social media and in other corners of the internet, waiting to be picked up and amplified by some distracted journalist in their media outlet, always has the same aim: to muddy the field of public discussion and to convince those of us who are part of it that we should doubt everything, including things we know to be certain. It’s not even necessarily about convincing somebody of something, it’s just about staining everything with a tint of falsehood so that the audience becomes incapable of discriminating between the truth and lies. Our work, if it needs to be repeated, is precisely to provide whatever tools we can to continue separating truth from lies. When we have misinformation in our hands we should be a protective dyke and not a drain.

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