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Professor Richard Sambrook – Fake news

3 May 2017

Deputy Head of Cardiff’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies and Director of Centre for Journalism Professor Richard Sambrook explores the reality of fake news and the importance of good journalism today.  

In a turbulent era of fake news, Donald Trump, Brexit, online trolls, bots, Russian hackers, disinformation and lies, the need for accurate reporting and informed comment and analysis is all too clear.   

At uncertain times, people need information they can rely upon in order to make informed choices about their lives.

But we should make no mistake, the populist politics of the moment – and the shifts in media consumption – mean that it is harder than ever to be sure about the quality of the news and information we consume.

The internet has allowed anyone to take part in public debate. There is much to be celebrated about a more democratic media environment – but it has also led to deliberate misinformation (sometimes for commercial reasons, often for political reasons) – which has become toxic.

More fundamentally, traditional journalism has been based on enlightenment ideals of facts, evidence and open debate. Much of it (although not all) attempts to occupy the neutral middle ground. But the middle has given way in an increasingly polarised set of political arguments – “either you’re with us or against us”. And journalism, attempting to be objective, can find itself on the wrong side of every argument as a result. It’s a difficult time to be a journalist.

However, political campaigns of deliberate misinformation have been seen to work, so we can expect more of them. And that’s only one part of the problem. Facebook and Google reach billions of people around the world – but treat authoritative news in the same way they treat fake news or cat videos. Indeed they favour the sensational, true or false, over the dull but accurate.

Levels of media literacy have fallen significantly behind the huge volumes of information we are all surrounded by daily. Many people are simply unable to understand the complex issues which lie behind what they see online or read, hear or watch every day.

And contributing to what sometimes feels like a perfect storm, the economic model for well-resourced news is collapsing as newspapers disappear or hollow out their newsrooms, leaving much of local government in particular unscrutinised.  What is sometimes called the “democratic deficit” – a lack of knowledge or understanding about how democracy functions – is feeding into the dissatisfaction reflected in the Brexit vote in the UK and populist elections globally.

The latest research confirms that publishers around the world are facing unprecedented levels of disruption to business models and formats from a combination of the rise of social platforms, the move to mobile phones as a primary source of information and the rejection of online and digital advertising by consumers. As a consequence, costs are being cut, media sensationalism is rising in attempts to get noticed and in many areas quality of information is suffering.
This doesn’t just affect the media. The “post-truth” climate is affecting all sectors and all forms of communication.  The complexities of communicating climate change have long been discussed with polarized views persisting in spite of the overwhelming evidence about the science. Now the same tensions are applying across almost every area of human activity.

Are free trade blocs good or bad? Do lower prices justify closing factories and damaging communities as jobs go overseas? Is immigration a net contributor or drain to our economy? Should we cast aside the preconceptions of the Cold War and forge new alliances with old enemies or should we beware their hidden agendas?

We may all have opinions, but public agreement about evidence seems harder than ever to reach.
Good journalism, then, matters. Public debate and decisions rest heavily on the quality of news and information they receive – and a robust, high quality, ethical media can make a profound contribution across the societies they serve.