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Opinion: Today's news, can we believe it

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Pallas Hupé Cotter - Opinion

18 April 2021, 8:59 PM

Opinion: Today's news, can we believe itIn a pop-up venue that looked a little like a circus tent inside, a panel of journalists sat centre ring.

In a pop-up venue that looked a little like a circus tent inside, a panel of journalists sat centre ring. Under the spotlight, they revealed why media criticism today isn’t so focused on what we once called a media circus, but instead on a growing lack of trust, stirred by the sticky slogan “fake news”.

The sold-out Aspiring Conversations event at the Wanaka Festival of Colour attracted an audience not just from around the region but across the entire country. From my vantage point in the front row, and as a former TV News journalist from the US, I was curious to learn how far the phrase fake news, made infamous by former president Donald Trump, has spread.

How much has it impacted media in New Zealand? And what are Kiwi journalists doing to counterbalance its influence?

According to the panelists, it’s a lot like walking a high wire.

Facilitator Lynn Freeman, of RNZ’s Standing Room Only, put the topic into proper perspective from the get-go.

She quoted another former US president who said: “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years”.

Pardon the antiquated English. John Adams said that in 1798.

So, the concept of fake news isn’t new. But its reach now has a dangerous global edge, threatening democracies around the world. As panelists pointed out, dictators commonly use the phrase to protect themselves from journalists they see as threats.

Fake news is a term that’s been weaponised. However, it doesn’t just mean disinformation, the deliberate spreading of stories that aren’t true.

It also refers to misinformation, including mistakes made by journalists and others who spread stories that don’t get the facts right. So how can news consumers be sure they’re getting the truth?

First, let’s look at what’s gone wrong.


The phrase “churnalism” was new to me. But I know the problem all too well. Journalists in under-resourced newsrooms with 24/7 deadlines are expected to churn out content constantly. News stories break around the clock and there’s a race to break news first and fast.

Anna Fifield, Wellington editor for Stuff and the editor of the Dominion Post, summarised the conflicting consequence of this “relentless” news cycle: “The internet for our industry as a whole has been fantastic and devastating at the same time.”

She pointed out that under this pressure “it becomes more difficult to get things right the first time”. That’s how “errors” are made that ultimately undermine public trust. She said at her news outlet they try to fight the urge to be the first to get the scoop in favour of getting facts straight from the start.

From experience, however, I know that people tune in or log in when news is happening. Sometimes you just have to go with the information you have, even when it’s incomplete or not yet in context.

The cost of churnalism can be especially high when newsrooms are underfunded. Advertising dollars are now divided among a multitude of media platforms.

Patrick Gower, Newshub's National Correspondent, said when he first started working at The New Zealand Herald, there “seemed to be a hundred” sub-editors who were available to check facts and grammar. In recent decades, those positions have been slashed from newsroom budgets.

Resource and time-poor journalists can also be tempted to turn around press releases without doing much due diligence. As the panelists pointed out, that means they can be unwittingly manipulated.


Control of the Narrative

Lynn Freeman added that “propagators” are “getting cleverer” because “they know that journalists are under pressure”.

The people behind the press releases, the spin doctors in industry and government, are more in control of the narrative than news consumers might realise.

Dr. Melanie Bunce, a Kiwi currently teaching Journalism at City, University of London, pointed out that “often PR teams are more resourced and more senior than journalists”.

The panelists across the board agreed that one of the best ways to fight back against fake news is to provide more funding for journalism. “Hire more, retain more”, as Fifield put it to me afterward. Building up a bench of experience would check the risk of spin.

It’s not just PR pulling the strings behind the scenes, determining who sees what news. It’s technology giants too, like Facebook and Google. The Australian government’s recent face-off with those companies, to make them pay for content produced by Australian journalists and news outlets, highlights what kind of power lies behind this push-pull.

The fight may be about their profits, but it also dramatically impacts how the public gets access to news.

This of course leads us to social media. What happens when news content is controlled by what machines have figured out about our political preferences? Echo chambers are created.

Gower warned that “the real enemy, when you talk about fake news, is really the algorithms that are locked away by the technology companies”. He added: “We didn’t copy America, we had our own version [of fake news] developing...anywhere where people can talk to each other without being challenged, and especially on Facebook”.

Fifield highlighted how Stuff decided to pull out of advertising on Facebook after the Christchurch attacks, but she added that an unintended consequence of doing that is to “create a vacuum” that alternative facts can fill. This may become especially important in New Zealand with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Freeman asked if the media now needs to be the “main barrier between fake news and the public”. All the panelists agreed that it’s critical journalists work with each other, as well as with scientists and government, to make sure the latest science and data is reported correctly and put in context.

They do expect continued challenges from conspiracy theorists. But Dr. Bunce suggested that this is where individual news consumers have a role to play.

She suggested “checking information before you share it”, because we have “cognitive biases...we trust other people we know”. She recommended asking, “Did I have a strong response to what I just read and is there maybe a reason for that?”.

I’ve written about this (although I didn’t choose the headline for the article). It’s a struggle to fight our own human nature.

As an observer of the media, no longer in its spotlight, I’ve watched the toxicity of debate reach new depths in the US. I hope that it never reaches a level as low here in New Zealand. I have been heartened by what I’ve seen since the pandemic hit: an uptick in viewership and readership as well as financial support for news outlets.

Patrick Gower went further when he said that for the media, the best thing about the past year was “for people to see how we improve the government’s response”.

He believes that this will be the “enduring legacy of COVID-19”. That said, he admitted he was surprised by how much the media was criticised for their pushback during question time after the daily 1pm briefings.

I did mention that it’s a high-wire act, right?

Getting balance right is a real challenge. Especially with all eyes on you as you perform.

At the end of the panel discussion, audience members asked some insightful questions. One, from one of the younger among us, was about how to attract a more youthful demographic.

Apparently, it’s about targeting them on Instagram and TikTok. Today social media platforms are the other rings under the big top news tent. Traditional journalism is investing in them to attract larger crowds. But as the panelists believe, the priority now needs to be making sure the main act features facts…not just entertainment.