The continuous stream of false information and mounting consumer mistrust challenges today’s media environment. When fake news becomes a daily battle cry for consumers and politicians alike, it’s time to rethink current reporting practices. The PEN American Center’s new report, Making News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth, reviews journalism and media interactions to identify how best to rebuild consumer trust in news outlets today.
Figuring out fakes
What exactly is fake news? It includes clickbait and misleading headlines as well as fraudulent news for profit or political reasons. On the other hand, “good-faith mistakes” or editorial points of view don’t fall under the fake news umbrella. PEN America defines fraudulent news as “demonstrably false information that is being presented as a factual news report with the intention to deceive the public.”
Importantly, while there is no quick-fix to stop fraudulent news, restricting or governing speech is not the solution. That said, digital media’s content and search algorithms are no excuse. Popular information channels like Facebook and Google need to behave responsibly, given their powerful roles. When Google shares content to supply a search result and Facebook curates content for its newsfeeds, they take on the responsibility to ensure the information they share is truthful. Social media and technology platforms need to step up their game to curtail the spread of fraudulent news.
The game plan
The report calls upon users, news outlets, policymakers, educators, social media and technology platforms and others in six key areas to support consumers in their efforts to combat fraudulent news and rebuild trust in media outlets. The six steps approach includes:
1. Educate to create informed consumers of news across all platforms.
Policymakers and educators:
- Identify effective forms of news literacy education.
- Engage and prepare teachers to educate the public on news literacy.
- Use all media platforms to inform citizens about the foundation of news literacy.
2. Equip the public to differentiate between fact and fiction.
Technology, social media platforms and other news intermediaries:
- Identify those producing fraudulent news to ensure they do not profit from advertising revenues and marketing dollars.
- Develop or invest in technologies and practices to quickly identify fraudulent efforts (e.g. bots) that increase traffic and suggest credibility of information.
- Detect fraudulent traffic so it’s visible to users.
- Fortify partnerships with independent fact-checking organizations. Ensure their work is easily available and understandable to users.
- Encourage news literacy plans and support through funding and partnerships.
- Introduce users to content outside their personal views. Ensure users can control what they see and receive.
- Appoint independent spokesperson(s) to reply to the public questions on these policies.
- Collaborate with academic researchers and civil liberties advocates to understand effectiveness of educational programs and policies.
- Ensure employees can speak candidly about preventing the spread of fake news.
- Guarantee there is an appeal process for those identified as publishers of fake news.
3. Exemplify the values of collecting and distributing credible news.
- Highlight transparency practices including the editing practices and the management of errors.
- Carefully label content to identify information reports versus an opinion or analysis.
- Ensure independent spokesperson(s) focuses on transparency and accountability.
- Assist in the public education regarding the harms of fake news.
- Proactively engage in civic and education initiatives to improve media literacy.
4. Engage users of different groups to better understand the passion or trigger points that influence their trust in the news media.
News outlets, social media platforms, educators, research institutes, and civil society:
- Identify and understand the drivers of media distrust.
- Offer opposing sides of topics to fight fraudulent news.
- Include voices from across the political spectrum.
- Ensure objectivity in operations and including the reasoning behind conclusions.
5. Expose those who purposely spread fake news.
News organizations and civil society:
- Report the ways in which fake news is created and distributed.
6. Empower people to help disarm fake news practices.
Policymakers, news outlets, social media platforms, and civil society:
- Refute those who deny validity of news.
- Protect sources especially with concerns of national security.
- Support the news of those in the minority.
- Publicly reject all efforts to denigrate the news media or undercut the legitimacy of their work and reaffirm commitment to the freedom of the press.
- Counter government efforts to close or limit media outlets.
- Defend freedom of the press.
Consumers, news outlets, social media and technology platforms all have a role in combating fraudulent news. Importantly, empowering consumers is the ultimate solution to reviving trust in media. Today’s users have the right to exchange information but now they need the necessary tools to conscientiously access its credibility.