Is prevention better than cure? Tackling ‘fake news’ in the media

By Anne Whitehouse

A recent public conversation between former The Guardian journalist Nick Davies and former editor Alan Rusbridger prompted me to think about the relationship between journalists and public relations professionals.

The discussion took place at An Oxford Conversation: Truth in the Media, hosted by the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford.

It got me thinking about the existential crisis facing journalism, the fact that the public relations profession still has a reputation problem, and the role that scientists and science communicators can play in finding ‘the truth’ in a world of information overload.

As Nick Davies pointed out, journalists have become increasingly deskbound, their numbers have diminished, and many are required to write around 10 stories a day. Research from Cardiff University (2008) found that journalists were filling three times as much space as they were in 1985, and it follows that they had a third of the time to check facts and sources and initiate new material.

Dependence on the public relations industry had increased with 80% of news being generated by public relations and wire services, and I imagine the balance is similar today – something PR professionals might see as a positive, but journalists are clearly not happy about. Meanwhile, despite sterling efforts on the part of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, many practitioners are not members of their professional body or bound by its Code of Conduct.

Nick Davies pointed out that there are many PR professionals who work hard to provide accurate information and the fact that many news stories are PR-led doesn’t mean they’re inaccurate; rather, it’s the imbalance that makes it harder for journalists to fulfil their roles as truth-seekers and for the public to find their way to veracity through a cacophony of information. It also creates a tension between two professions who have a symbiotic relationship, whether they like it or not.

The Cardiff University report quotes John Lloyd, founding member of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, as saying: “Until [the reliance of journalism on PR] becomes open and debated between PR people and journalists, we will continue to have this artificially wide gulf where journalists pose as fearless seekers of truth and PRs are slimy creatures trying to put one over on us. It is not remotely like that.”

We are still debating the topic today, and the situation doesn’t seem hugely different. There’s unlikely to be a resurgence in ‘traditional’ media, so what is the cure for this unhealthy situation? One proposition, shared at the meeting, is to improve media literacy so that people can make their own judgements about which stories are substantiated by evidence. We need to raise awareness of the ‘whirlpools’ created by people writing, sharing and being served stories that fit their existing worldviews. By engendering some healthy scepticism, we could discourage people from asking “Do I like what I read?” and equip them with the ability to ask, “Is it true?”.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals a very unhealthy state of affairs, “a world of seemingly stagnant distrust” in which 50% of us consume news less than weekly, 63% are unable to “tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods”, and ‘the media’ are the least trusted institution. The Barometer also found that 7 in 10 people worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon.

However, there is a glimmer of hope – trust in journalists (rather than media platforms) is increasing as is trust in ‘academic experts’, who are narrowly beaten by ‘technical experts’ for the top spot in the ‘voices of authority’ category. So, perhaps the solution is to find truth in the intersection between the worlds of first-class journalism, professional public relations and evidence provided by academics, in a new model whereby journalists have an acknowledged role as curators of information from reliable sources.

Encouraging those who are regarded as credible to engage more with the media and improving reporting of important issues could help to prevent a ‘fake news’ pandemic that wipes truth from the face of the planet. Prevention is always better than cure, so working together to improve the quality of information, as well as helping people to be more discerning, could help increase trust in the media whilst proving the value of the public relations profession.

Watch a video of the ‘Truth in the Media’ event on the Nuffield Department of Population Health homepage

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