Savvy news consumers have likely seen signs of a major conflict brewing in the media for quite some time. When the term “fake news” entered the mainstream in 2016, however, it served as a clear signal of the media in crisis. There could not be a more relevant issue to students working toward their online masters in communication, as they prepare to enter a world plagued by fake news.
Learn more about the impact of the fake news epidemic and how communications professionals and journalists can stay relevant today.
Image via Flickr by Deutsche Welle Unternehmen
Importance of Social Media During a Media Crisis
Social media has become an increasingly important outlet for sharing and disseminating news. As the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reports, in most nations around the globe, people rely on social media more than printed newspapers for their daily news. Since social channels are responsible for the popularity of many misleading stories, however, it’s important for these platforms to curb the distribution of fake news.
Sites such as Facebook and Google have already taken steps to stop the proliferation of fake news. Since producing these misleading stories can be very profitable for the websites that disseminate them, Facebook and Google have opted to limit their profit potential. Without the ability to use these social channels’ ad platforms, fake news sites will likely struggle to disseminate their stories and may lose the ability to operate altogether.
Many critics have called on major social media platforms and other online channels to do more, though. In fact, some leaders have proposed levying large fines against social media platforms that don’t remove demonstrably fake stories from their feeds.
As Reuters explains, Google intends to support high-quality journalism sources via its new Digital News Initiative. Facebook intends to incorporate fact-checking features into its newsfeed and has provided tips to help users spot fake news. Twitter now offers users the option to mute certain terms and phrases. Other platforms may follow suit, offering fact-checking browser extensions and pop ups that help readers assess the truth behind what they’re reading and make informed decisions about their news sources.
Impact on Journalists and Media Professionals
For journalists and communications professionals, the ramifications of fake news are significant, as the very concept of false information affects the core of this industry. Media experts who have spent years working in this industry spend much of their professional lives conducting in-depth investigations. They strive to uncover facts and new angles that shape the stories they tell and the perspectives they share.
Media professionals’ hard work and high ethical standards have traditionally built trust among their readership, but the rise of fake news has compromised much of this goodwill. Since some fake news sites even look like trustworthy sources, the average news consumer finds it more difficult than ever to distinguish the two. In many cases, readers have to do extra work to verify sources and confirm facts, which undermines the work of media professionals.
Ramifications of the Fake News Epidemic
Fake news sites have long helped their owners gain a political foothold, but PBS NewsHour traces the first major spike in fake news to the 2014 Ebola crisis. Though only a handful of Ebola cases were confirmed in the U.S., several fake news sites produced false stories suggesting that the disease was much more widespread. At this time, some sites even took on a more convincing air of authenticity, causing some readers to confuse them with real news sites.
Two years later, fake news reached fever pitch during the 2016 presidential election season. As PBS NewsHour reports, during the final days of the election, fake news actually outperformed real news on outlets such as Facebook. This means that during a critical time in American politics, readers consumed more untrue stories than verified news pieces from 19 major media outlets.
Official investigations into the origins of and impetus for these fake election news stories continue, but their impact continues to grow. In fact, some fake news reports have prompted readers to take action in real life.
In December 2016, a 28-year-old man traveled to Comet Ping Pong, the Washington, D.C., bar and pizzeria that served as the epicenter of a widely circulated conspiracy theory concerning Hillary Clinton and a child-trafficking ring. There, the perpetrator fired an assault rifle as he attempted to investigate the alleged trafficking ring. While no one was injured, this incident demonstrates how real some readers perceive fake news to be.
How Journalists Can Stay Relevant
As media professionals struggle to regain trust and combat fake news, one of their main tasks will be to remain relevant in today’s news culture. One way journalists can do this is by maintaining their unique points of view yet simultaneously inviting other voices into the conversation. Offering broader perspectives and increasing diversity in the newsroom can help to create a more inclusive environment and to rebuild trust with key audiences.
Media professionals also must join the push toward public fact-checking. While journalists typically check facts and verify sources behind the scenes, making their process more public could help them appear more trustworthy and more in tune with their audiences. Doing this will enable journalists to offer increased transparency and will also give them the opportunity to expose misleading information promoted by fake news outlets.
Reuters reports that many leading journalists are also planning to embrace popular social media platforms to stay relevant. About half of those surveyed by Reuters intend to use platforms like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger to share real news stories and engage with readers on their own terms.
Finally, journalists and media organizations can also choose take part in initiatives such as Public Data Lab’s “How to Spot Fake News” guide. By participating in important discussions about what constitutes fake news and how it spreads, media professionals may better understand how to connect with their audiences, while putting a stop to this dangerous trend.
Media professionals have numerous tools at their disposal to fight the current media crisis, but a long road still lies ahead. If you choose to pursue a Master of Communication Management online, you could have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to this conversation, developing new ways to share relevant journalism and impactful news with the world.