Real News: You Get What You Pay For

This article first appeared in Village magazine, February 2017 edition

“Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.”

That quote is usually attributed to Albert Einstein. But being a journalist, I decided to check it out.

It turns out it has also been linked at various times to Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin (though apparently not Oscar Wilde, who usually shows up in these things too), but the earliest known instance of the quote is in 1980, in an Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet.

Journalism in the age of Donald Trump can feel a lot like insanity, as the world goes crazy and norms which would have ended a political campaign – or a political career – are dismissed even before the next craziness appears on the horizon. Despite that, journalists keep pulling away at the same levers they’ve always worked, checking quotes, verifying leads, and generally making sure their work is as accurate as possible.

In the final 2016 edition of Village magazine, this column concerned itself with the topic of “fake news”. For the first column of 2017, it will look at real reporting.

If Donald Trump has achieved one change in journalism this year, it has been to kill off “fake news” as a useful label. Trump killed it when he refused to take a question from Jim Acosta as a press conference, calling CNN fake news for reporting the existence of an intelligence “dossier”, thus rendering the label meaningless.

Fake news is dead. And not before time. Since the phenomenon  first emerged and was named late last year (defined by Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed as “100-per-cent-false stories predominantly published by sites that exclusively traffic in hoaxes to generate clicks”, it has become a go-to label for any problem with the news industry. What originally described a narrow range of activity, from Macedonian teenagers making of bogus stories about Trump and Clinton, to Californian millennials doing the same thing – all in the name of a nice little earner from programmatic advertising – expanded to include everything from propaganda and partisan reporting on Russia Today or Fox News, skewed reporting from conservative- and liberal-biased websites, and satire mistaken for real news.

“Fake news” is a new phenomenon. It may even be a phenomenon with a limited lifespan (at least in its current manifestation) if Facebook and Google find a way to tweak their algorithms and starve the sites of the advertising clicks they need to survive. But bogus news is not new, it is as old as the earliest pamphleteers, and it is why journalism evolved protocols for fact checking, and verification, and multiple source confirmations on controversial stories.

So for the record, and because things should be named accurately, it is worth repeating:

– Propaganda is not fake news.
– Lies are not fake news.
– Hoaxes are not fake news.
– Satire is not fake news, even if people mistake The Onion or Waterford Whispers for real reports (a phenomenon known as Poe’s Law on the internet, )
– Conspiracy theories are not fake news. Conspiracy theorists may be weirdly, fabulously wrong, but they are also sincerely wrong. Unless of course, it’s a case of Poe’s Law.

Journalists – and citizens – need to identify these things as what they are, not as fake news. Words still have meanings, even in an era were Newspeak is becoming US government policy, and the accurate use of words helps both reporters and readers navigate their way to meaning.

Journalists need to go “insane”, doing the same things they’ve always done, checking facts, verifying quotes, interviewing eyewitnesses, challenging official accounts and narratives. In short, the slow, meticulous work of piling fact upon fact, building an accurate picture of the world.

At the end of the day, of course, voters may still decide to elect a Trump, or a Le Pen, or some other  “horrorclown”, but it is not a journalist’s job to think for the public, only to provide the facts so they can make informed decisions.

Meanwhile, the energised reaction of the American press to the Trump presidency ought to be a cause for some reflection on this side of the Atlantic too. Imagine a moment where the Irish fourth estate applied the same focus at home. On every story.

Imagine, for example, if dubious ministerial claims in routine press releases about welfare fraud were reported as the nonsense they are, since most “fraud” is in fact described in the small print as “fraud and departmental errors”, with those administrative errors making up the vast bulk, while “fraud savings” are a statistical illusion, an amount saved because the departmental staff did their actual jobs and verified all welfare claims, rather than just signing cheques blindly.

Or look at how the US press counted the days since Donald Trump’s last press conference before he decided to have a go at a CNN reporter  while surrounded by paid cheerleaders. Now ask yourself how long is it since Enda faced the press at a full-blown conference, and how often he has done so in the past six years since becoming taoiseach?

Imagine what it would look like if RTE (or even TV3) filmed an entire press conference, and then dissected every answer afterwards, rather than running ten seconds of soundless images over a news report while a journalist paraphrased the talking points in the minister’s press release.

Just think how much it might reveal to a reader, viewer or listener to be told that the apparently spontaneous “doorstep” as a minister left a meeting had in fact been scheduled hours earlier, with an email sent out to every newsroom in the capital describing where the minister would be, what time he would be there, and the topics on which he would take questions. RTE has an entire news channel, why not use it for more than simply repeats of Prime Time? Why not put the same footage from press conferences and dubious “doorsteps” online, on the RTE and TV3 websites?

News websites don’t have to be limited just to text reports, or even to audio and video packages. As well as links to raw footage just mentioned, reports and other source materials can be placed online, or linked to elsewhere. Got an interesting result from Freedom of Information requests? Don’t just put up the one document you think is newsworthy, post the entire release. Someone in your audience may spot something you missed, or shed light on a technical detail that seemed unimportant.

And when “a government spokesperson” says something on the record, identify the spokesperson. Don’t grant spurious anonymity. Accountability isn’t some huge mystery. It’s lots of little things, piled one upon the other, fact on top of fact, describing reality one piece at a time.

Fake news, partisan news, propaganda, hoaxes and the slow water torture effect of lazy, clickbait headlines have all damaged the quality and image of news outlets. The brands have been cheapened in pursuit of ever-diminishing advertising returns. In this context, it is noteworthy that the newspapers which led the fight for accurate and comprehensive reporting of the US election campaign have been rewarded by increased subscription revenues. Readers are aware that good journalism costs money, and the brand that can deliver good journalism can reap a reward in customer loyalty, not just an audience willing to read, but an audience willing to pay to read a reliable source. Paid readership may decline overall in a world where free content is available at the swipe of a phone screen, but there is still an audience for reliable news. To use a music industry analogy, if hot takes and clickbait are free streaming music apps, then subscription funded news is the new vinyl.

Subscriptions, and other independent funding models, are a signal of trust and reliability. They are part of the reason why NPR is a leader in the US podcast market, why readers are willing to pay for the Financial Times or the Washington Post.

Those lessons can be learned and applied in Ireland too, but that means editors embracing their role in jealously guarding the quality of the brand, and the trust it has built up over time, double-checking and vetting all content to ensure it does not damage that trust. Reputations can take a lifetime to build, but only a moment to shatter.

With trust in Irish media dropping to an all-time low of 29 percent – ten percent lower than a year ago and the lowest out of 27 countries surveyed – according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, reputation is no longer a luxury. It is an asset, to be tended to as advertising declines and reader trust – and the subscription revenue flowing from that trust – becomes critical for the survival of news.