Mak­ing ef­forts to curb the spread of fake news

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT -

YOU MAY NOT HAVE marked your cal­en­dar, but this is Na­tional News­pa­per Week.

Be­yond the navel-gaz­ing long true of the in­dus­try – and even more so given the well-doc­u­mented merg­ers, sell­outs and fi­nan­cial woes of the dailies – the role of news in our lives is to­day more rel­e­vant than ever given the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate.

Start­ing with the Tweeter in Chief and his Rus­sian coun­ter­part and mov­ing through the ranks of pop­ulists to the tyrants and em­bez­zlers, the politi­cians du jour have gen­er­ated plenty of dis­cus­sion about what’s news – in par­tic­u­lar, what is fake news.

In this cli­mate, re­search has shown some 63 per cent of Cana­di­ans were un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween le­git­i­mate news web­sites and fake news sto­ries, and 65 per cent of Cana­di­ans are wor­ried that false in­for­ma­tion or fake news is be­ing used as a weapon.

Clearly, ac­cess to the truth is at risk. For the le­git­i­mate press, that threat is pri­mar­ily dig­i­tal, which “ap­pro­pri­ates” news gen­er­ated by ac­tual jour­nal­ists, pro­mul­gates fake sto­ries and de­bate, and draws away rev­enues de­spite stud­ies that show such ad­ver­tise­ments to be in­ef­fec­tive.

The loss of more real re­port­ing will only lead to less in­for­ma­tion in an elec­tronic me­dia (in­clud­ing on­line sources) that has al­ready de­scended into par­ti­san bick­er­ing and scream­ing south of the bor­der. Changes in this coun­try, though less ex­treme, have not been for the bet­ter.

Iron­i­cally, even as we’re flooded with in­for­ma­tion – from on­line news sources to Face­book and Twit­ter and that ilk – there’s a greater need for a source to fil­ter and in­ter­pret all of that raw data. That’s pre­cisely what news­pa­pers have been do­ing for cen­turies.

Be­sieged by new tech­nolo­gies, frag­men­ta­tion in the mar­ket and what seems to be an in­creas­ingly de­tached cit­i­zenry, news­pa­pers do have much to worry about. But the in­dus­try has been its own worst en­emy in many cases, as con­cen­tra­tion of own­er­ship led to ho­mog­e­niza­tion and a de­cline in qual­ity, of­ten fu­eled by new cor­po­rate masters more con­cerned with stock prices than with the good jour­nal­ism, the very thing needed to at­tract read­ers.

And while more peo­ple go on­line to get their news, few peo­ple are aware that most of the ma­te­rial pro­vided by news ag­gre­ga­tors such as Google or end­lessly re­hashed by blog­gers comes from news­pa­pers, the or­ga­ni­za­tions with trained jour­nal­ists on the ground, at­tend­ing meet­ings and por­ing through doc­u­ments.

It’s that heavy lift­ing that sep­a­rates tra­di­tional me­dia from new forms, and why most Cana­di­ans still con­sider main­stream me­dia as the most trust­wor­thy source.

There is some hope Cana­di­ans at least are start­ing to sort things out, be­com­ing more crit­i­cal of so­cial me­dia post­ings. When asked which on­line source is the best for pro­vid­ing ac­cu­rate and re­li­able news, two-thirds (68 per cent) of us choose one that has its roots as a tra­di­tional me­dia out­let. This fig­ure is higher among those un­der 35 (71 per cent), ac­cord­ing to a 2017 sur­vey.

Not sur­pris­ingly, those in the in­dus­try see the changes as a threat not only to their fu­ture but to the demo­cratic func­tion of the me­dia. As we’ve seen in an in­creas­ing num­ber of cases – the Trump/Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion among them – the in­ter­net leads to a pro­lif­er­a­tion of lies, dis­in­for­ma­tion, pro­pa­ganda and what would ac­tu­ally qual­ify as fake news.

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of in­for­ma­tion via tech­nol­ogy is far more chaff than wheat, lead­ing to in­for­ma­tion over­load. Trou­ble is, most of it is use­less, mak­ing for an ill-in­formed cit­i­zenry.

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