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'Fake news will only be defeated by accurate, fact-based journalism that tells the truth'

The media needs to look at itself and remedy the kind of weakness that canny communicators like Trump can exploit, writes Dr Fergal Quinn.

Dr Fergal Quinn

“DARKNESS IS GOOD,” Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon said a few weeks back. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they (liberals) get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”

Bannon’s comments reverberated again last week, as Trump berated a CNN reporter for having the temerity to try and ask him a question. “Quiet,” he told him. “Your organisation is terrible…you are fake news.”

It was the latest in a string of attacks by Trump on respected news organisations including The Washington Post, the BBC, The New York Times and suggests a pattern more significant than simple annoyance at hostile coverage.

Trump’s co-opting of term ‘fake news’

His use of the term “fake news” is a particularly interesting, co-opting of a term that became ubiquitous in recent months in descriptions of the type of false stories which flourished on social media leading up to his sensational win over Hilary Clinton.

Clinton was, at varying times, implicated in paedophile rings and murder, while unlikely public figures such as the Pope and actor Denzel Washington declared their support for Trump.

Term becomes meaningless

But the term “fake news” has been used to describe so many types of news content that it becomes almost meaningless. It can be used to describe news output which is deliberately made-up, or accidentally wrong, news which is partially wrong, or simply incomplete.

It is being used to describe news content that is badly reported or corroborated, and news which is thoroughly reported but framed to fit an agenda by a reporter or editor.

As a term, “fake news” is far too all-encompassing to usefully describe and differentiate between what is happening recently, and more existential problems that have always been at the heart of how journalism is practiced.

Objectivity has become an aspiration

Consider, for example, the problem of objectivity in journalism, a value increasingly being seen as aspirational, as opposed to entirely achievable.

If you are a white, Irish, middle-aged, middle-class, Catholic woman writing a story, your every word choice and sentence construction betrays your subjective perspective, whether you want it to or not.

Should articles which lack objectivity then, be put under the same banner as deliberately falsified reporting? “Fake news” as a term is just vague enough and specific enough then to be highly useful for politicians who prefer to operate in areas where boundaries are blurred and meaning is unclear. In darkness, so to speak.

Trump adopts it for his own purposes

Trump Source: Evan Vucci

Donald Trump has, from the moment he has stepped into the political arena, been hit by scandal after scandal; from shady business dealings and allegations of sexual assault, to his stated admiration for dictators.

It serves his purpose perfectly to construct a narrative that everything you read in the media, in the New York Times or in your Facebook feed can be described as one great monolithic slab of fakery.

Thus, there is no difference in “fakeness” between a picture of a shark swimming in the Shannon river, which is clearly photoshopped, and a picture of the aftermath of a bombing in Aleppo which has been verified and corroborated by numerous sources, though is being officially denied by the regime.

What can be done to limit the effect of this cascade of misinformation?

Because there is a lot at stake here, both internationally and here at home. When the holder of the most powerful elected office in the world sets a tone, have no doubt that existing and wannabe demagogues from Manila to Dun Laoghaire are taking note.

Firstly, the media does need to take a look at itself. It must remedy the kind of weakness that canny communicators like Trump can exploit. There is evidence of a decline in journalism standards within established, “traditional” media companies in recent years, mainly due to time and resource constraints.

The race to be first, to win the ratings war, the clicks, the ad revenue, has led to news organisations getting caught out, hurting public faith in the media as representing their interests.

Media trust

Trump and canny populists like him are using this vulnerability to push the notion, not that media policy makers should try to improve and protect the space in which good journalism operates, but that journalism itself is the problem and we simply shouldn’t trust any media content. This, of course, only serves their own agenda and their desire to be able to do and say as they please without uncomfortable scrutiny.

Most of us who criticise content published in our media, whether it be the Journal.ie or the New York Times (and as a journalism teacher, I spend a great deal of time in my classes discussing just this), do so because we desire high standards and we believe in what journalism can and should be.

We do not believe that there is no good journalism being done today, but that there should be more of it. Misinformation can only be fought only by a renewed commitment to true information.

Journalists must always keep this in mind and those who consume news must also be aware of it. Think before you share on social media. Consider all the facts and not just the ones that suit your argument. This goes for people who are against Donald Trump and what he stands for as much as those who thinks he is what the US needs right now.

Readers should be suspicious

But it should be less a lazy reactionary cynicism than a healthy scepticism that drives one to check and corroborate everything before it is believed. And there’s the rub.

In his heart of hearts, Donald Trump and those behind him know this too, that a blizzard of lies and distortions can be defeated by just the thing he is trying to discredit.

Accurate, comprehensive, fact-based journalism which tells the truth. Which doesn’t flinch or back away and which shines a light on the darkness to give a full picture.
The kind of picture that may well show us that the man who is shouting “fake” the loudest, is the one with the most to hide.

Dr Fergal Quinn is a lecturer in journalism at University of Limerick. He tweets at: @quinnfergal.

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Dr Fergal Quinn

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