Finding A Way Through Fake News
Massaged press releases.
Omissions of fact.
And in Trump’s case, outright, instantly disprovable lies.
How do you negotiate your way through this minefield to get to what’s actually happening?
There was an old tabloid trick that still stands today; print the lie, retract it tomorrow – because nobody reads retractions.
If the absence of hard news has started to annoy you more lately, there’s a reason for it. There are fewer sources now and much less reporting of actual news facts. This is partly because news availability is being more managed, there are now fewer jobs available in the press as publications close down, and declining ad revenue provides less money for wages. Print is declining fast (a year-on-year drop of over 8%) while digital eyeballs are proving almost impossible to measure. The press is moving into a darkened area without a torch.
With fewer staff reporters you have to rely on bought-in news, then pad out your edition with opinion pieces, speculative articles and nonsense columns. Reviews are useful because all the materials you need arrive on your doorstep, sent by PR agencies. Press releases are used so ubiquitously that many hacks don’t bother to change US references to UK ones – the Guardian is pretty legendary for doing this. True reporting is massively time-consuming and wasteful; three quarters of what you get is not usable. It’s much easier to write a piece comparing shop-bought cupcakes from your desk.
There’s a reason why there are more opinion pieces on this blog now than when I started. If I’m writing a historical item on London I have to go and research it, make notes, take photos, then come back, write it, edit it and put it out. There was division of labour in physical print; you had a typesetter, an art director, an editor, a sub-editor, researchers and gofers. Spelling and grammar suddenly took a dive in quality 15 years ago when the art directors found themselves having to add and set their own copy. Art directors work late and are often quite dyslexic; sometimes there’s no writer around to provide an art director with a block of copy.
So it is on this site. I can prepare several opinion pieces because they’re not time sensitive, then work on others which are topical, but the ones that involve experiences (like the ‘London Walks’ series) always take a full day of my time. As it is, blogging and social networking accounts for 20% of my working day – and I’m pulling down very long hours.
With Russia, the far right and the far left all adding their own fake news you have to be careful about your chosen sources. Yet the news has always been managed. In times of war the public were told nothing, and even the full story of America’s defeat in Vietnam (regarded as the first televised war) took decades to come out. The editor decides what to cover. I aggregate my news feeds, supplementing them with international press like El Pais and India Times, plus long-read articles in The Guardian and respected magazines like The Atlantic, the LRB, the NYT and the New Yorker for balance, topped up with the BBC’s News Night.
But the key is often to trust your instincts. I find it staggering that so many people translated their limited personal experience into a vote on Brexit. A marketing director in central London is not going to have the same viewpoint as a carer in Devon. We work with the tools we’re given, but what we make with them is up to us.