Fake news, conspiracy theories and fabrication are aspects of our society that have been prevalent for centuries. Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, traced fake news all the way back to ancient Rome, in a 2017 Oxford alumni festival speech:
‘My own fake news item of choice comes from ancient Rome: the dodgy dossier obtained by Octavian used to discredit his imperial rival Mark Antony. Octavian claimed that a document in his possession was Mark Antony’s last will and testament. It was later dispatched via messengers throughout the empire. Not quite as effective as social media, but still a successful political stitch-up, circa 33BC’. (Barber, 2017)
In fact, from a biblical perspective, one could go as far as to say that fake news began with Satan, disguised as a serpent, telling Eve to eat the apple. However, a more recent awareness of fake news can be seen through a proliferation of the ways in which we absorb our news, and information. As a recent CNN article elucidated: ‘social media has added an entirely new dimension to the [fake news] phenomenon.
Now anyone in the world can easily create and disseminate false information, and with the help of bots, organized groups, or targeted ads, it is easy to amplify it’ (CNN, 2017). TV News is perhaps going through its most challenging time with the proliferation of fake news. A 2017 Media Survey Report from BBS Communications Group elucidated that, when asked about fake news, ‘the largest term that came to journalists was Donald Trump (20.6% of 141 responses)’ (BBS, 2017). It could be suggested that the 45th President of the United States ‘has arguably been the biggest beneficiary of the advent of fake news […] He has also benefitted from the distrust of the mainstream media by many conservatives, by calling inconvenient news ‘fake news’’ (BBS, 2017). Therefore, could it not be argued that the more time spent giving weight and attention to fake news, the more it will snowball – almost becoming a “buzz” term. Thus, through its mention, we cement it deeper into an accepted, everyday narrative. Author Mark Dice elucidates: ‘One outlet published an article cautioning against growing fake news panic titled, “Stop Calling Everything ‘Fake News’” […] two months ago, almost no-one was talking about fake news. Now you can hardly turn on the real news without hearing it’ (Dice, 2017: np). TV news’ lack of reference to fake news could be a positive enhancement to building trust in viewer’s.
One way of looking at the proliferation of fake news across digital platforms, is that it can aid the trustworthiness of television news because, as people see an influx of fake news online, they turn to the medium they know best for validity and clarification – that being TV news. A 2007 Ofcom report elucidated that: ‘Consumers want and expect to see high quality, well-funded PSB-style television news […] three quarters of the population think news coverage on the PSB channels is important, and 80 per cent agree it is important that terrestrial channels are obliged to provide regular news’ (Ofcom, 2007).
Compare this to the Ofcom report of 2017 and it states: ‘Despite the threat from online services, revenue for the broadcast TV industry increased by 1.0% [and additionally], the main public service broadcast channels (BBC One, BBC Two, ITV/STV/UTV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) continued to retain more than half of the total broadcast TV audience in 2016, maintaining their 51% share over the past four years’ (Ofcom, 2017). Thus, it appears despite the changing of times, people are still reliant on TV news to a certain extent. Trust in the media could be a result of its transparency; there are physical, on-the-spot, reporters and this in itself appears more dependable than videos on social media platform: ‘With TV and radio, in particular, the face or voice of the journalist is an important part of why people rely on it’ (American Press Institute, 2016). Fake news does not have a face like TV news does, and this in itself makes TV news trustworthy.
However, the challenge is to retain the attention of the younger generations. A report in 2016 highlighted that ‘social media has overtaken television as young people's main source of news’ with ‘28% of the 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed, citing social media as their main news source, compared with 24% for TV’ (Wakefield, 2016). Mobile phones are surpassing every other medium for news consumption and so a way for TV news to help bolster trust and confidence in its viewers would surely be to alter their business models. In an attempt to correspond with the wake of digital newness, ‘It’s up to traditional broadcasters to continuously adapt and respond in order to stay relevant to their viewers in the future’ (Translate Media, 2017). With the knowledge that ‘about 67 percent of American adults somewhat rely on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat for news’ (Moon, 2017), it is wholly evident that our increased use of social media is leading to an altered way of news absorption. The ease of scrolling down a news feed, videos that play automatically and an ever-growing societal interest in social media is provoking a change in our news consumption.
So, how can broadcasting services bolster this trust? They need to be transparent about how they conduct their research, and demonstrate fact checking. For example, 2017 saw the BBC ‘assemble a team to fact check and debunk deliberately misleading and false stories masquerading as real news’ (BBC, 2017). The BBC additionally have a ‘Reality Check’ section on their website which delivers information that public have requested the team to investigate. Their team checks and examines facts and claims behind a story in order to let the public know whether or not it is true. Equally, Channel 4 have a ‘Fact Check’ section and release regular videos online such as ‘How to Fact Check Fake News Sites’. They give advice such as checking images saying that hoaxers often use real images but lie about where they were taken. Channel 4 thus advise people to use Google Images to find out more about an image. This shows how Channel 4 are working in a positive way with the proliferation of social media to spread the message of fake news. Services such as this are undeniably ways in which TV news can help bolster trust in its viewers and maintain its audiences in this ever-altering era.
A recent shooting at the YouTube headquarters saw malicious posts on social media suggest that US comedian Sam Hyde was the alleged gunman, later dismissed as fake news. Undeniably, the lines between fake news and satire can sometimes become blurred, with websites such as The Daily Mash producing flagrant stories inclusive of “Women paid 1990s wages 'to make them feel younger’”. However, with other fake news websites the fallaciousness can be more arduous to decipher, with URLs fabricating themselves as ones similar to trusted sites; ABCnews.com.co, for example. Instances and websites such as the aforementioned are why TV broadcasters should provide full transparency and fact checking. TV news remains a powerful form of media because it dispels the untruths and presents the viewer with hard facts about the events, but it needs to prove to its viewers that this is the case.
TV news can undeniably bolster trust and confidence in its viewers, but there is no doubt that it is challenging in the present climate to do so. With the Trump administration being described by many as ‘the antithesis of science, facts and research’ (Rymel, 2017), people are having to attempt to regain their trust in the media and TV news. Our distrust in TV news and the media dates back through history, teaching us the lesson that ‘it is our responsibility to find out what is really true, regardless of who says it’ (Rymel, 2017).
TV news’ struggle is to persuade people whom, as human beings do, already have cemented opinions of their own, and are thus searching for confirmation through the media, as well as fighting against social media and fake news. After Brexit and the election of Trump, ‘the free circulation of malicious lies, the ineffectiveness of fact-checking, the resilience of populist propaganda, racism and sexism and the emergence of the so-called post-truth era appear to challenge a fundamental cornerstone of ethical journalism’ (Ethical Journalism Network, 2017). Journalists have the problem of news coming across as “unfashionable”, and the question of how TV news can regain their viewers trust is not a question that is going to be answered overnight. In essence, ‘this existential crisis requires, above all, for journalists to recommit to their craft with reporting that reaches out to their audience and listens to what is being said and reports it in context’ (Ethical Journalism Network, 2017).
TV news is moving in the right direction to combat this aforementioned existential crisis with the introduction of fact checking sites, however the challenge is for journalists not to become disheartened with the proliferation of fake news and social media.