REPORT: Journalists see fake news as their problem to combat; PR officials seek ways to help

Although he has taken great pains to claim it as his own, President Donald Trump didn’t invent the term “fake news” or the concept itself. For generations, unscrupulous hucksters have used the tools of the media to spread misinformation for their own gains. In short, this stuff didn’t start with Trump and it won’t end when he leaves office and Twitter holds him accountable to the same standards it does for all other regular citizens.

As we outlined here on the blog, there are numerous reasons why fake news has emerged over the past decade,  why people believe it and what we can do to fight it.

Greentarget, a strategic public relations firm that focuses on business-to-business organizations, recently  released a report titled “Fake News 2020: Combating disinformation and misinformation in a polarized world,” that examines how journalists have come to view this phenomenon and what it has done to their field. The survey of 100 journalists, half of whom have worked in the field for 20 years or more, asked these individuals 16 questions pertaining to the prevalence and impact of fake news as well as how best to fight it.

(You can download the full report here. It’s free, but Greentarget will ask you to fill out a contact form.)

A few key findings in the report include:

  • 80% of the respondents surveyed strongly agreed that fake news has negatively impacted journalism
  • 64% stated it is the responsibility of journalists and journalistic institutions to vet fake news
  • 56% stated social media is the greatest threat as a form of fake news distribution.
  • Journalists are generally split between disinformation (34%), or the spread of purposefully false content, and misinformation (31%), the spread of content that’s wrong but people believe it to be true, as the most problematic part of the fake-news phenomenon
  • The majority of the journalists surveyed do not see governmental intervention as the way to fix this problem.

The report outlines numerous problems associated with fake news, much of which we see played out in daily life: It supports unfounded prejudices, creates fractures in social harmony and shifts users sense of reality in regard to current events.

It concluded with a section on how PR professionals can help combat fake news, because it impacts their field as well in ways that often get overlooked.

Reliable journalism is in fact a vital element of our business. Our clients trade on their authority; they turn to us to help establish and burnish it. We believe that in order to be seen as authorities – experts who are not just heard but heeded – our clients’ insights and perspectives must withstand the scrutiny of the journalistic process. But that only works if readers trust the journalism.

Paul Wilson, senior editor at Greentarget, has worked in both the news and public relations areas and has seen the impact fake news has on society at large. Wilson was nice enough to agree to an interview to discuss the report, its findings and what needs to happen next to keep portions of society from living in an alternate reality.

Here is a transcript of the interview, with minor edits for clarity and structure:

What made Greentarget decide to take a look at the issue of fake news from the journalists’ point of view? Where did the interest in their opinions come from and what did the organization hope to learn?

“Lisa Seidenberg, one of our VPs, attended a panel where journalists were discussing how much fake news was affecting their profession. She thought it would be a good idea for Greentarget – which works with top-tier reporters every day – to tap our network to gauge journalist sentiment.

“A big focus was to see if journalists thought a new presidential administration would improve things, but there were a lot of other goals, like determining whom journalists think should be the first line of defense against fake news.

In terms of the findings, what things came back that you all might have expected and what things surprised the organization, based on the prevailing thoughts going into this survey?

“There was actually an interesting point of disagreement within Greentarget when it came to expectations. Some of my colleagues thought the survey respondents might have hope for progress in the fight against fake news if Trump lost the election. As one of Greentarget’s former journalists, I figured that was unlikely.

“Cynicism is part of the deal for most journalists, and I guessed that most of the respondents would know that a lot of the underpinnings of fake news have nothing to do with who’s currently in the White House. Turned out, I was right – though I wish I had been wrong.

“On the other hand, one of our findings was encouraging. Journalists – after a decade-plus of newsroom cuts and more-with-less talk and near-constant criticism — aren’t turning away from the challenge of fighting fake news. Actually, it’s more than encouraging. It’s inspiring.”

Given what Greentarget does, and its audience, what is the benefit of this research in regard to those elements?

“What a lot of journalists don’t understand about PR – what I don’t think I fully understood when I was a reporter – is that a lot of what we do relies on a credible press corp.

“For those of us who work to help smart people get their message out, we need good reporters and editors who put out a product each day that people can rely on. Our clients’ ideas get more traction if they’re disseminated by journalists whose readers trust them to thoroughly vet those ideas.

“And beyond our own business concerns, we know that good and credible journalism is part of the foundation of a functioning society.”

Based on these findings, what do you think journalists should take away from this and what is the “actionable” element that you see coming out of this? In other words, what happens next?

“Journalists should keep fighting the good fight. That’s a little cliché, but they know their jobs and by doing them, they’re combating fake news.

“On the actionable front, we decided to go into more detail on what PR professionals can do. That’s partly about staying in our lane, but it’s also where we think our guidance can be most incisive and impactful.

“In a way, the passion of journalists we surveyed inspired us to be more strident in our own convictions. By that I mean, we end our report with a formal list of actions we pledge to take and that we encourage other PR professionals to follow. These actions in many ways have always been part of Greentarget – i.e., supporting reporters and editors, stressing ethics and transparency and putting the audience first. But we’ve added to that with a commitment to advocating against fake news and taking on a leadership role for future PR practitioners.”

If you could tell students reading this anything about what you’ve found here that you think they should know, what would it be?

“I’d tell students going on to be reporters and editors that despite all the challenges journalism faces, they’re entering a field where the commitment to journalistic ideals isn’t wavering. That’s pretty extraordinary. I can’t think of another field where the ideals would survive in the face of so much adversity.

“For students going into PR, the message is that they have a role to play. They can help legitimate journalism survive at a time when it’s really important. This point is sort of meta, but the fact that an organization like Greentarget is weighing in on this – when it doesn’t have to, and indeed, could anger some important people in the process – shows what’s at stake in this moment.”

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