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Trust in the age of misinformation

A member of staff Page Hood (right) asks Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson a question regarding fake news websites during a question and answer session on a general election campaign visit to Fergusons Transport in the town of Washington, west of Sunderland, northeast England, on December 9, 2019 as Chair of the Vote Leave Gisela Stuart (centre) stands by.

A member of staff Page Hood (right) asks Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson a question regarding fake news websites during a question and answer session on a general election campaign visit to Fergusons Transport in the town of Washington, west of Sunderland, northeast England, on December 9, 2019 as Chair of the Vote Leave Gisela Stuart (centre) stands by.   | Photo Credit: AFP

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Are the journalistic measures taken to confront the scourge of misinformation enough to stop the erosion of trust?

Every year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford publishes a report on the media. This year’s study, Journalism, Media, and Technology: Trends and Predictions 2020, documents the changing contours of the news business and how the industry is coping with the challenges posed by technology. It points out that at a time of economic and political uncertainty, news organisations may have to face more challenges to their sustainability. It says broken business models and platform companies are exacerbating the crisis.

Factors affecting journalism

The study also records a number of factors that are affecting journalism. It deals extensively with the impact of post-truth politics on journalism and has suggestions for news organisations on how to deal with this new reality. The study focusses mainly on the U.K. elections and the narratives surrounding Brexit. The findings are not encouraging: politicians have played with facts, avoided journalistic scrutiny, and succeeded in denigrating the media. The report cites the U.K.’s independent fact-checking organisation, Full Fact, which says that the six-week campaign saw “inappropriate and misleading campaign tactics that we hadn’t seen before”. The devious methods it saw included “an official Conservative Party Twitter account impersonating a fact-checking organisation and editing footage of a Labour politician to make it look as if he couldn’t answer a question about the party’s Brexit policy.”

The report says the reach of misinformation forced many news organisations to integrate fact-checking into their coverage and scrutinise politicians wherever possible. However, these special programmes did not get many views. The report points out that politicians are increasingly trying to bypass the media and convey messages directly via social media. Leaders across the world have become more belligerent than ever before, says the report, and cites the examples of Boris Johnson refusing to giving an interview to journalist Andrew Neil, the regular threats given to review the broadcast licenses handed out to media organisations such as Channel 4, and the funding arrangements for public media like the BBC.

Impact of fact-checking

While 85% of those surveyed said that the media should call out lies and half-truths, readership figures and audience engagement numbers indicate that growing indifference adds a new dilemma to news organisations. What is the impact of fact-checking? There is some indication that rigourous and relentless journalism sometimes leads to disengagement; people simply avoid reading the news. Can journalism effectively engage readers in the light of growing cynicism and negativity? Mary Hockaday, Controller, BBC World Service English, has come up with a possible answer: “We certainly need to offer fact checks and reality checks. But we also need content which explores good faith politics, what might be working, how policy develops and makes a difference. Otherwise we will push our audiences to disengage and distrust politics even more.”

These issues resonate with an Indian news ombudsman because this country is in constant election mode and political leaders here too use digital platforms for propaganda. It is not just Mr. Johnson who has refused to give an interview; Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in his second term and is yet to hold a single press conference. He also reaches his audience through his radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’, or Twitter, or soundbites to select news agencies which are not questioned. In a sense, we citizens get a series of monologues from our leaders.

Some of the best fact-check exercises in India happened following the brutal attack on the students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. But they did not deter the peddlers of fake news from regurgitating the same old lies. What can a news organisation do in the present environment?

Journalists should bear in mind what Reuters Fellow Richard Fletcher says about the status of trust. He says the trust factor will get worse before it gets better. Explainers, contextual essays, increased space for data journalism, long-from reportage and analysis of difficult policy decisions are some of the journalistic means to confront the scourge of misinformation. Are these measures enough to stop the erosion of trust?

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 7:26:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/trust-in-the-age-of-misinformation/article30550937.ece

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