Battling fake news – upholding truth in the media

Published on: 1 June 2019

In an age of "fake news", the role of trusted journalism is more crucial than ever. Ian Clarke looks at the challenges of being a Christian in the media.

After 30 years in journalism, I’ve got used to being at the lower end of the league table of trusted professions.

In the most recent survey by Ipsos Mori, we were only above advertising executives, politicians and government ministers in the hall of shame. Hardly a glowing endorsement.

Just 26 per cent of those polled said they would trust journalists to tell the truth. I’m no mathematician, but I calculate that means three out of four – by default – feel we’re dishonest. Nurses topped the trust table with 96 per cent, doctors were just behind on 92 per cent and then came teachers on 89 per cent. (By the way, I wouldn’t argue about the faith we have in all those fine bodies of people.)

It’s a fairly typical view of the standing in which people in our country hold the ladies and gentlemen of the press (and those in broadcasting and social media operations).

Is it a fair judgement on the industry which has the responsibility to inform, investigate and hold authorities up and down the land to account?

I’m deeply ashamed by the appalling practices by a minority of hacks which have tarnished the reputation of journalism as a whole. Phone tapping, fabricated stories, collusion and downright lies are among the examples of totally unacceptable techniques used by the worst offenders. Some have rightly been prosecuted after the spotlight, which is one of the bedrock tools of our profession, was shone on their wrongdoings.

I’m proud to say that the vast majority of journos I have worked with and known over the past three decades have been honest, dedicated and determined people with integrity and a desire to uphold the principles of our industry. We take our duty to maintain a free press and behave with honour and truth very seriously.

Is that easy in a world of fake news, the pressures of 24/7 media, the proliferation of social media and more unverified sources than we have ever known? Absolutely not.

And while I still love my job after all these years, as a Christian I feel it is now even tougher to maintain the truth.

When I started off as a wet-behind-the-ears trainee back in 1988, things were so much simpler.

Media was pretty much confined to newspapers, TV and radio. Journalists were generally those who had the sole job of reporting the news and taking the pictures. Public bodies and companies tended to have one or a small number of spokespeople.

In 2019 the situation is so, so much more complicated.Everyone can be a publisher, whether it be on a blog or Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. The days when the only journalists at a big news story – such as a crash, murder or fire – were employed by news organisations have long since gone. Citizen journalism is rife. Anyone can share a picture or post “news.” But has it been checked? Is it true? Is it biased? Is it legally sound?

Our reporters all must pass exams in law, ethics and public administration. We have senior staff to check stories before they are published as well as a lawyer on call around the clock if expert opinion is needed.

Spin has also become more and more prevalent as organisations, councils and government try to put a positive slant on their news. PR officers earning considerably more than journalists with decades of flying hours are employed to drill home corporate, political and governmental messages.

The role of an independent, trusted media is so important.

I believe God wanted me to work in the media. As a raw 18-year-old straight out of sixth form, there were many more qualified than me who applied for the role as a trainee journalist at Eastern Counties Newspapers as they were then called.

But I’m sure he created the path for me to walk on.

When I was a reporter, there was a heavy responsibility, to tell the truth in the stories I wrote.

For the past six years, I have been a senior member of the newsdesk, and have an even greater burden to set the agenda, shape the tone of the papers and websites and be an example to members of the team.

The real difficulty doesn’t come with the issues of striving for accuracy and balance. It comes with dealing with all the nuances of tone, fairness and spin.

How many times have you heard the phrase “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good headline”?

It is so easy to have an idea in your mind for that headline which will sell papers or get huge hits online, and then make the story fit it.

Every article online is now measured for the number of times it is viewed and for how long. That analytical data is crucial in the job of persuading advertisers to invest in our sites.

Sharing stories on social media is also a key part of our business and clearly, that has the danger of accuracy being diluted as more and more is added as it takes its rapid journey around Twittersphere or in the Facebook world.

Speed is also an added factor. For professional pride and to ensure we get the audience we need, we want to be the first to publish a story. There are so many others – both recognised media and unregulated sources – trying to do the same.

Another area with huge pitfalls relates to images. Remember that phrase “the camera never lies”? The onset of editing tools means that is a huge lie in itself; any picture can be doctored or tinkered with to tell a completely different story.

Please pray for Christians working in the media that we can uphold the task God has given us.


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