Subject Russia: Editors Warned to Shun Fake News and Embrace Editorial Integrity
Note: This article was originally published under the title "Fake News vs. The Editor" in Editors Only, a journalist insider publication for magazine and newspaper editors. It admonishes editors to serve their readers instead of pressure groups.
The 2016 presidential election season brought the issue of editorial integrity to the fore.
Many media stories took up the phenomenon called "fake news." The term refers to the deliberate fabrication and propagation of information for the purpose of misleading the public. Who were the editors behind this kind of journalism?
The Problem and the Opportunity
For professional editors, all this attention presents both a problem and an opportunity.
On one hand is the problem that some readers may view what we publish with a more jaundiced eye moving forward. On the other is the opportunity for us to differentiate our publications and brands from the plethora of fabricated, poorly sourced, and malicious information that is all too present on the Internet.
This means going the extra mile to publish articles that are truly reader-centric rather than capitulating to advertiser, industry, organizational, or political pressure to push material not truly reflective of reader interests.
"Fake news" was a popular search term on Google. I did a Google Trends comparison of its prevalence with "terrorism," a concern to almost everyone. It shows that in early October there was five times as much search interest in terrorism than in fake news. But as the political story built, by November 18, fake news searches were twice the number of those for terrorism.
Click here to see a graphical representation. It shows Google search interest in fake news vs. terrorism from October 27 to November 25. Note the spike in fake news interest on November 18. (The sine wave pattern in the terrorism plot reflects a lessening of interest over weekends.)
Who Is Publishing This Fake News?
Facebook took much of the fall, and much of the outrage, over fake news regarding election coverage. But it wasn't alone. Many allegations have been made that adolescents in Macedonia are deeply involved. I don't know if that's true or just a diversion. (Hmm, wouldn't it be ironic if that story about fake news were itself fake news?)
One of the many fake news stories involves a quoted statement from Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi. One headline exclaimed, "BREAKING: Pepsi Stock Plummets after CEO Tells Trump Supporters to 'Take Their Business Elsewhere.'" But an examination Nooyi’s actual words reveals that the headline contains a fake quote. Nooyi never said it. Interestingly, the quote first appeared on a site called TruthFeed.com.
As far as I can see, this Pepsi fake news does not seem to have crossed over into mainstream media. One international broadcaster whose news appears on some American cable systems fell for the fake, however. RT, a Russian government–sponsored news channel and website, ran the headline "Trump Backers Call for Pepsi Boycott."
Strangely, in its own story RT added, "A number of websites quoted CEO Indra Nooyi as telling Trump supporters to 'take their business elsewhere' -- a comment she has denied." So the story narrative negates its own headline. What a truly odd editorial approach that is!
At a press conference in Berlin, President Barack Obama commented on fake news. The New York Times reported he "used the moment to make a passionate and pointed attack on bogus news stories disseminated on Facebook and other social media platforms, twice calling such false reports a threat to democracy in his hourlong news conference."
The Hacking Scandal: A Case Study
While alternative media have gotten the brunt of criticism over fake news, mainstream outlets deserve a share, too. The Russian hacking of the DNC emails stands out in this regard. Very few national media outlets didn't jump all over this one. I won't repeat the headlines. But what's significant is that this major story may have been fake news, too.
National Review reported that many political officials have been claiming that 17 US intelligence agencies have determined that Russia was responsible for the hacking. However, that claim was "false and misleading" according to the magazine. It went on:
"First of all, only two intelligence entities -- the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- have weighed in on this issue, not 17 intelligence agencies. And what they said was ambiguous about Russian involvement."
I looked at the official statement issued by the agencies in question, and National Review appears to be correct. The report presents no evidence to back up the hacking contention and merely says that this is something they wouldn't put past the Russians. In other words, it fits their MO.
National Journal elaborated: "Saying we think the hacks 'are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts' is far short of saying we have evidence that Russia has been responsible for the hacks. Maybe high-level officials would have authorized them if Russian hackers were responsible, but the DNI and DHS statement did NOT say there was evidence Russia was responsible."
A Teachable Moment for Editors
Thankfully the 2016 election season is mostly over and the politically hypermotivated fake news stories will, with any luck, finally subside.
There is a lasting message in this sorry tale for the rest of us, however. It is that public awareness of journalistic malfeasance has been heightened.
That means as long as you're not a part of the fake news travesty, you've got something significant to brag about and to use to differentiate yourself. And I strongly recommend that you do so.
It is really important that we as editors let our current and prospective readers know that we embrace and practice editorial integrity. They can rely on us. Be sure to point out how beneficial that is for each and every audience member.
That will highlight the distinct value that established and respectable editorial brands offer over the shady, unreliable, and sometimes fly-by-night alternatives that are so easily encountered online.
Don't miss this chance.
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