Trumping fake news

Written by Leanne Rate, MPRINZ, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand and Central Committee member

‘Fake News and How to Trump it’ was the topic up for discussion for panel members Dr Catherine Strong (Senior Lecturer at Massey University), Patrick Crewdson (Editor of and Raphael Hilbron (General Manager at SenateSHJ Wellington) at a recent PRINZ Central Division event. Catherine says the fake news industry is new, and is not simply about wrong information being shared, but that the waters have been muddied by the Trump camp defining any news they don’t like as ‘fake’. During the US elections Donald Trump enjoyed support from 62 million voters – with many clicking on the fake news websites that said what they wanted to believe i.e. pro-Trump, anti-Clinton stories. The large population behind Trump meant big money for the purveyors of fake news, more clicks = cash. Interestingly, fake news is a big industry in the financially depressed nation of Macedonia, where out-of-work teenagers found that they could make good money by sharing fake news about the US elections. Fake news is causing a confidence issue for Americans says Catherine, as they become unsure about what news is real vs. fake, with the dilemma meaning an increase in traffic for reliable news sites like the New York Times and Washington post. For PR professionals concerned about fake news affecting their organisation, she offers the 5 P’s:

  • Prevent – make sure you are not contributing to the spread of fake news – don’t re-tweet or re-post stories if you haven’t researched their origins and veracity – be vigilant.
  • Pick-up – keep on top of what’s been said about you in your social media monitoring, and then get on to it quickly if its fake.
  • Percolate – if there is a fake news story about your organisation, Catherine says “Don’t be quiet. Put out your own correction and drive it through social media as hard as possible. Put ‘fake’ in the headline or in the first part of the tweet.” This will help social media aggregators identify fake news and remove it. It also means your own stories will rank in Google alongside the fake ones, giving readers a chance to be more informed. She also recommends posting comments under fake news stories, alerting readers to the fact it’s not true.
  • Place – get your media release used by the most trusted mainstream media sites. Concentrate on that rather than a scatter gun approach sending your media releases wide and far.
  • Polish – Headlines are important, it’s a catchy headline that gets shared most on social media, says Catherine. “Make sure your headline gets the gist of the message in it. It is no longer a teaser into the story – it is the story.”

For Patrick Crewdson, it’s a particular type of fake news that worries him the most. He’s less concerned about the parody of fake news generated by Macedonian teenagers becoming a problem in NZ with our small population, and is more worried about how the label of fake news has morphed. He says Trump is now using the term to describe any news story he doesn’t agree with, aiming to shut down coverage by major news organisations like CNN who he labels as hostile. It’s a theme Patrick says he is starting to see at Stuff, with readers sending complaints to the editor on stories they don’t like, calling them ‘fake’. Bizarrely he’s starting to see these types of complaints even about weather and entertainment stories. “It’s increasingly a problem if people dismiss real stories as fake news because they don’t like the content,” he says. He argues that journalists and media outlets will need to work harder to maintain their credibility.

He believes the best way to increase credibility for media outlets is to:

  • Ensure reporting is beyond reproach Be as transparent as possible Publically advocate for themselves as media, including doing their own PR and explaining themselves
  • Get better at representing diversity and a range of voices. People are less likely to deem something as fake news if they can see themselves in it.

Raphael Hilbron represented the PR voice at the panel event, pointing out that “fake news is a problem for society, media and PR.” He said fake news is benefiting from the distrust the average citizen has of the media and other institutions, in part aided by the blurring of opinion and editorial. He pointed to the gap in reporting that would have alerted the public earlier that Trump was winning the US election, instead the wide range of biased reporting meant we were blindsided, wondering what we had missed when he won. Highlighting the distrust of the media, Raphael cited a recent Gallop poll which said that in the USA only 32% of respondents said they trusted the media – the lowest result since the poll started. He argues we are now seeing the rise of the ‘echo chamber’ where people are getting their news from very narrow spheres of influence, and are simply starting to believe what they want to believe, which leaves them “susceptible to the suspect agenda of others.” He also referenced an opinion piece by Karl du Fresne which lamented the death of objective journalism in the Sydney Morning Herald, where journalists mixed comment with fact to offer their biased detrimental view on Trump. “Traditional media should uphold independence, accuracy, accountability and transparency. They have to prove that facts do matter, they need to convince readers there is a value in investigative journalism.” To be able to fund investigative journalism, media outlets will have to figure out how to convince online readers the news is worth paying for says Raphael. He ended his time by reminding PRINZ members that our ethics are paramount, no-one in our profession should endorse lying or fake news, and that our own interests, and that of our clients, is best served by keeping to our code of ethics.

Thanks go to Central Division PRINZ committee member Annalie Brown (MPRINZ) for organising such a great panel and topic for Wellington’s first event for the year.