PR pros’ role in the fake news epidemic

Are you OK with clickbait headlines and subjective reporting, as long as you’ve gotten the media coverage you covet? Here’s why such attitudes have perpetuated the problem, one pro argues.

We’ve all heard it. We’ve all seen it in headlines. We’re all to blame for the surge of “fake news.”

By we, I mean ordinary citizens, journalists and those of us who feed the news cycle.

Many ordinary citizens accept a headline as truth without ever reading the article or doing any research to confirm its contents. Some journalists have gotten away from objective reporting, selling sensational headlines and speculation for clicks. Too many powerful news organizations on both sides of the aisle push agendas they must uphold, cherry-picking facts that support inherent bias. Many PR pros are totally fine with spin, as long as it gets placements and may lead to more money in their budget.

So, how did we get here?

1. Historical propaganda. Fake news isn’t new. Countless examples of biased, fact-twisting articles, political propaganda and sensational stories can be found throughout history. Dating back before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, fake news has been used to slant opinions for the purpose of gaining power and influence.

2. Citizen journalism. News organizations often are no longer first to the scene. Smartphone-carrying citizens bring us our first glimpse of real-time news. The average person now has an active role in capturing, analyzing and distributing news and information to the masses. The Huffington Post even has its own Citizen Journalism section, for example. With that power comes great responsibility. Some are heeding the call; others are taking advantage of the situation, ignoring journalistic ethics along the way.

3. Speculation: First vs. facts. As noted in my “Reporting in the wake of tragedy” post in 2013, some of the most credible news outlets in the world put “getting it first” in front of “getting it right” in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. The nature of speculation has, over time, diluted many news organizations’ credibility. Consumers are drawing the line with outlets that are blatantly obvious in their attempts to win by speculation. “Get the facts first” is a growing sentiment.

4. Pageview journalism. The age of online news coverage brought about significant change regarding how the public consumes news, but it also changed how journalists got paid. The rise of clickbait headlines is the obvious product of pageview journalism. Sensational headlines get clicks. Some journalists now get compensated by how many clicks their stories generate (partially or completely). It all comes with a price, including the public’s declining trust in mass media outlets.

5. Selective news. It’s disturbing to see more and more people limiting themselves to content that only supports their political bias. It’s even more disturbing that we have so many “news outlets” that outwardly support partisan politics. What happened to listening to both sides and coming to a rational decision based on history and facts? What happened to making sure we have a well-rounded, full view of an issue before forming an opinion? What happened to true debate? What happened to objective journalism?

6. Post-truth politics. Feelings have replaced facts. Partisan rhetoric and talking points have replaced factual, thoughtful rebuttals. PolitiFact characterized the rise of “post-truth” as a representation of when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Denzel Washington was recently interviewed about a fake news claim surrounding whom he supported in the 2016 presidential election. The actor made clear his views on fake news: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed.”

The reporter on the red carpet followed up: “So what do you do?”

His response was telling:

“That’s a great question. What is the long-term effect of too much information? One of the effects is the need to be first, not even to be true anymore. So, what a responsibility you all have; to tell the truth. Not just to be first, but to tell the truth. We live in a society now where it’s just first. Who cares? Get it out there. We don’t care who it hurts, we don’t care who we destroy, we don’t care if it’s true. Just say it, sell it. Anything you practice you’ll get good at—including BS.”

That about sums it up, right?

The snowball effect of all these factors has caught up with us. We created it. It’s up to us to fix it. These simple tips may help:

  • Hold journalists accountable. Check credibility through facts and sources. Period.
  • Learn history. Mark Twain is often credited as saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Think about that.
  • Do your own research. Don’t distribute information that is inherently false, misleading or riddled with errors. Before you share that Facebook meme, take 10 minutes to research the source, the facts and figures, and whether it checks out. Context matters.
  • Stop reading headlines as facts. Headlines are not facts. Headlines (especially clickbait headlines used in pageview journalism) are created to get you to click through or read further. They don’t count as cold, hard truth.
  • Expand your world. Arguing via social media and pointing the finger doesn’t make you an expert; it means you have cyber courage. Talk to people who think differently and who come from different backgrounds. Read and listen to reputable journalists, representatives and news organizations that challenge the way you think and present differing points of view. You might learn something about yourself and those around you.

As President Barack Obama noted after the 2016 election, we’re in a media climate in which “everything is true and nothing is true.” Let’s all do our best to make sure 2017 is an accurate, credible year.

Dan Guttridge is an account executive at Vehr Communications. A version of this article originally appeared on the agency’s blog.

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