Finding A Way Through Fake News


Fake news.

Massaged press releases.

Omissions of fact.


Hidden agendas.


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.

6 comments on “Finding A Way Through Fake News”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    Brexit seems to have been all about not giving any depth of analysis or information to the public.

    No one was given a realistic set of information about what the EU had accomplished for us and how much our economy was tied in.

    David Cameron threw us into the mincer because of his own stupid ego, thinking that it wouldn’t happen.

    There should have been at least a year of information and debate as to the likely outcome and potential problems.

    As it was we ended up with a ‘Do you want interfering foreigners in charge?’ decision.

    If the latest revelations, that Russia may have financed the pro-brexit lobby in order to destabilise Europe, iare proven then we must look at how democracy can be maintained in an internet and age.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    I read Private Eye, one of the few papers that prints ‘true facts.’ Sometimes the truth is very depressing, but still preferable to a pack of lies pretending to be news.

    As Chris says, it’s up to us to discriminate, but it’s not always easy. Do we have the capacity to judge? Should we have a referendum on (say) quantum entanglement? We might find the laws of physics are not the same in different parts of the UK.

  3. Brooke says:

    What Peter T says. It’s up to us to think critically AND to build our capacity to do so. Yes, we are given tools but we can also find/invent tools to deepen our understanding of issues. Our lives depend upon doing so..

  4. snowy says:

    I don’t think this fondly remembered golden age ever really existed.

    Newpapers have always held their own agenda, however successfully they might try to conceal it. But all the apparent ‘sins’ listed can easily be found in 19th century papers*. [It wasn’t new even then, Trajan’s column is a 100′ high ‘puff piece’ designed to mollify the plebs.]

    What has changed is the creation of vast armies, thousands upon thousands, with the single objective to game or manipulate the media in anyway possible into promoting their particular agenda, however benign or evil that might be. This has created an arms race between PR companies with no regard for any form of journalistic values, in which nothing is too unethical provided it achieves its end.

    Once one faction starts playing this game, everyone else has to join in or get drowned out, even film companies, hawking sequels to 1964 magical nanny films. [Shhh… it’s embargoed!]

    I was given lessons on how to deconstruct and decode newspaper articles at school, but to my continued astonishment have never, ever met anyone else that did.

    [* The British Library Online Newpaper Archive is rather fun to wander around. Access varies depending on which continent you happen to be on.]

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, I received information about that sort of deconstruction and we gave beginning lessons to children, mostly about advertising, because it’s what would attract elementary age children. It’s essential if a person is to know what the writer really knows, as opposed to guesses.
    I found it disturbing that Trump supporters have complained about the negative coverage the president is getting. What they should be concerned about is whether the reports are true or not, not whether the report is negative or not.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I found a book entitled The Oath and the Office: a guide to the constitution for future presidents. (It has a subtitle so you know it’s serious.
    I had to find the text of the American Constitution in order to follow what Corey Brettschneider was saying but if you want to learn what the president can and cannot/should and should not do, this is an excellent source, although you end up knowing more about the US Constitution than you really want to. Try reading the instructions for the election of the President if you really want to play fast and loose with your mental processes.
    I knew the 18th amendment made the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal but I didn’t know that the 21st amendment, which revoked the 18th, left it open to states to declare themselves dry. When I asked my in-house authority he said that it was true indeed and that Kansas did exactly that so that any trucker carrying liquor had to re-route around Kansas. The Supreme Court validated the increased charges in that situation.

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