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Media Studies

www.curriculum-press.co.uk Number 173

The Search for Truth: The Rise of


Fake News
The aim of this Factsheet is to consider the recent debates related to The need for online and broadcast news to be as up to date as possible
the idea of ‘fake news’. This Factsheet will: means journalists are often dealing with breaking news stories. This is
•• Identify definitions of ‘fake news’. when an event occurs and the news source runs with the story minutes
afterwards. Journalists will add to the story as more information comes
•• Provide examples of ‘fake news’.
to light. The nature of breaking news events means that reporters are
•• Identify some of the issues and debates raised by ‘fake news’. writing on stories where it takes time for details to come to light, or
for information to be uncovered. These types of stories can sometimes
What is fake news?
be very speculative, trying to guess what has happened and why.
This is not necessarily an easy question to answer. The term fake news
Audiences may interpret the guessing that reporters engage in as ‘the
has recently been used in several different ways and can refer to one
truth’ and not realise there was little evidence for the information that
or more of the following:
was provided. When a news item is breaking, journalists tend to rely
1. News items that are incorrect (based on an error or when new on social media for their information. They look for images, videos
information shows earlier reports to be wrong). and eyewitness accounts. Unfortunately, these personal accounts
2. News items that fail to question the information presented to may not be accurate, as even eye witnesses may not have access
to information that may alter their interpretation of events. News
the reporter.
providers are under intense pressure to get news stories out first and
3. News items that have been written from only one point of view to attract audiences to their updates on developing stories. A slow and
or are biased. more measured approach may lead to more accurate reporting, but it
4. News items that are knowingly fabricated. can also risk losing audience members to other news sources.
To add to the confusion over
the term, some politicians have Case Study: Channel 4 Westminster Attack March
begun to use the term ‘fake 2017
news’ when they are questioned The Channel 4 News Team
by journalists to discredit any During the news broadcast of Channel 4 News on
interrogation of their attitudes March 22nd 2017, the programme gave the name of
or behaviours. This way of who they thought was the attacker in the Westminster
using the term is incorrect, but Attack earlier that day. Later, it was discovered that
as more public figures use the this information was incorrect and the person they had
term to dismiss a difference of named was actually in prison and so could not have
opinion or to avoid addressing carried out the attack. This isn’t really ‘fake news’ as this
criticisms, then it is likely that type of misinformation
this way of using the term will is accidental and
start to be more accepted. news sources try to
make sure they are as
1. News items that are incorrect (based on an error or when new
accurate as possible.
information shows earlier reports to be wrong)
They also try to
Errors often occur in journalism with incorrect information, facts,
ensure that mistakes
figures and names often finding their way into news stories. Human
are corrected as soon
beings are fallible and so mistakes can happen. This isn’t really ‘fake
as they can to stop
news’ as such although it can lead to people being and remaining
the spread of incorrect information. In this case, the
misinformed. Print and online news sources will often print a
regulatory body for broadcast news, Ofcom criticised
correction to the original mistake or a follow-up article providing
Channel 4 News and Channel 4 apologised for the way
more accurate information will be published. Online news stories are
they handled the story.
often edited and information about the changes made to the story are
In a statement, the broadcaster said the mistake came
printed at the bottom of the page. The job of fact checking used to lie
during a “fast-moving story” and that Channel 4 News
with sub editors, but as free news has reduced the profit margins of
had “moved swiftly to correct and clarify the facts as
news organisations, this is a task that is now left to the journalist as
conflicting information came to light”.
this cuts the cost of news production.
The Guardian: Sept 11th, 2017

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Media Studies
173. The Search for Truth: The Rise of Fake News www.curriculum-press.co.uk

This is not strictly 'fake news' but can have a similar effect. Limited
Activity: Google ‘Ofcom – due impartiality and due fact checking is a weakness in the way that news works in today’s
accuracy’ and look at some of the rules and guidance fast-moving and competitive culture. News organisations do not
in section 5 of the broadcasting code. always have the staff or the time to fact check and challenge errors
and untruths. Audiences find themselves needing to try to work out
According to the code: what is true and what is not, for themselves.
1. What should a news broadcaster do if they make a
mistake in their reporting? 3. News items that have been written from only one point of view
2. How can news broadcasters try to ensure that their Again, this is not strictly 'fake news', but is biased reporting. Biased
reports are impartial? reporting is widespread in British Newspapers as there are no rules
to stop a newspaper from supporting a specific political party or
ideology. Newspapers will have editorial policies that will define the
2. News items that fail to question the information presented to
way a paper ‘thinks’ about specific political and social topics. The
the reporter
Daily Mail, The Express and The Sun are socially and politically
Journalists are sometimes accused of creating ‘fake news’ when conservative whilst The Guardian reflects more liberal, left-leaning
they fail to challenge or question information properly. The BBC attitudes and The Mirror has more traditional left-leaning values.
were accused of failing to identify that many of the claims made by
politicians on both the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ side of the EU referendum
Activity: Go to two different British newspaper’s
were false. The BBC is required to provide balanced reporting, giving
websites and see if you can identify some of
each side of an argument the same amount of publicity, but they are
the values and ideologies of each newspaper.
sometimes criticised when they do not identify mistakes, mis-speaks
Look for the attitudes and beliefs that are being
or mis-information., but instead offer airtime to someone with an
communicated within the reporting of the news stories.
opposing view. The BBC have been criticised for giving climate-
changes deniers and equal amount of time in debates about topics
such as the impact of greenhouse gasses, fossil fuels and changing Each newspaper’s editorial position will influence the way a news
weather conditions. Some argue that, as the majority of scientific story is reported and will shape the values and ideologies that are
studies in this field agree that climate change is real and is in some communicated. Broadcast news is more highly regulated and Ofcom
way impacted on by human behaviour, they should not be asked to rules say that broadcasts must be balanced in the way they report on
engage in a debate with people who don’t believe in it. Many climate stories and events.
change deniers work directly or indirectly with companies or pressure Some values and ideologies are
groups who benefit from stopping behaviours that seek to reduce so naturalised that they do not
climate change. seem to be an issue, even in
broadcast news. For example,
it would not be expected
Case Study: Sky News and Liam Fox that the BBC should offer an
This image shows the ‘alternative viewpoint’ on a
politician Liam Fox story about murder being a bad
sitting in front of an thing. In the same way, stories
image of a tweet he about capitalism are usually
had sent. During the presented without an alternative
interview on Sky News viewpoint too.
he denied sending the
As newspapers are competing
tweet and the interview
for readers with broadcast news
ended without this fact
and online news services, the
content of a daily newspaper
Journalists in the US were also criticised for not challenging many mixes the reporting of events
incorrect statements and claims made by Donald Trump during the with opinion editorials (op-
2016 American Election. By not challenging statements, for example eds). These are articles written
that Mexican migrants were ‘flooding’ into the US (when, in fact, by journalists whose role is to
more Mexicans are leaving the US than arriving), the US news media have an opinion on the news
may have allowed misinformation to be seen as being ‘truth’ and and events of the day. Some op
so, unwittingly been part of the creation of 'fake news'. Some have eds offer a genuine attempt to
argued that it was difficult for journalists to keep up with the amount analyse and understand events
of misinformation given out by Trump during his campaign and (for example, the work of John
since he was elected. Trump’s confidence can make him seem very Harris in The Guardian), whilst
convincing and so it is inevitable that some of the misinformation he others offer a humorous take on
has communicated will be seen as ‘facts’ by some. what’s going on (see the work
of Marina Hyde (The Guardian) Op-ed writers John Harris, Cait-
or Caitlin Moran (The Times). lin Moran and Katie Hopkins

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173. The Search for Truth: The Rise of Fake News www.curriculum-press.co.uk

Other commentators, largely in the tabloid press, write using a be politically sympathetic and so, less likely to query the truth of the
sensational style and hold opinions that are communicated in ways story being presented. The main concern is that fake news stories lead
that intend to create an emotional response in the reader. Jan Moir, people into voting a certain way, and therefore, have the potential to
Richard Littlejohn and Liz undermine the democratic process.
Jones (amongst others) all The fact that many people receive links to news stories via social
work for the Daily Mail and media rather than access reliable news sources direct has, enabled fake
have voiced opinions that news stories to be circulated more easily. Social media companies use
have generated arguments computer algorithms to provide news and information on things the
and debates on social user is most likely to be interested in. This is based on their own
media. Expressing extreme online activities and comments as well as those of the people in their
or outlandish opinions is a social network. This means that people are becoming less likely to
form of click-bait and when see stories and opinions that challenge their existing view and more
audiences are shocked, likely to receive stories that confirm what they and their friends
outraged or even pleased already believe. This is sometimes called the echo-chamber effect and
to have their own extreme this creates a social media bubble – a small universe of like-minded
view reflected, they are more likely to share links to the story and people often unaware of the fact that not everyone thinks the way
get involved in online debates. All this helps to drive readers to the they do.
newspaper websites which helps them generate an income. Katie
Hopkins became famous for saying things that many people found
inappropriate and tasteless and she built a media career on creating
outrage, conflict and arguments. She hosted a ‘shock-jock’ radio show
on LBC and has written op-ed pieces for The Sun before moving on
from both media companies after complaints were raised about her
attitudes towards refugees and Muslims. She currently writes Op-Ed
pieces for the mailonline.
Opinion-based articles by their very nature are biased and are unlikely
to present a balanced perspective on the subject being discussed.
They can be used to attempt to persuade readers on a specific point of
view but, even though they may not be accurate, as long as the fact
that the article is based on an opinion is clear to the reader, this type From The Onion – a satirical publication. Not fake news
of reporting can’t be accused of being 'fake news'. as they never try to pass of their ‘stories’ as the truth.
4. News items that are knowingly fabricated
This is where an article is written knowingly containing lies,
misinformation or is reporting on unsubstantiated claims. There are Case Study: Pizzagate
many reasons why fake news may be created and circulated. The two During the 2016 US election campaign a fake news
main ones would be to make money or to skew readers’ opinions for story was generated that linked Hillary Clinton with a
a specific political purpose. paedophile ring. The story claimed that this ring was run
Fake news makes money for those that generate it, by driving readers out of the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington.
to websites which in turn generates advertising revenues. Like other The story was spread on social media and repeated
types of click-bait, fake news is often sensational and shocking and in the Turkish press. The story led to the owners and
so people click to find out more when incendiary headlines appear on workers at the pizza restaurant receiving threats and
their social media feeds. Fake news can cover all sorts of topics from online harassment as some people apparently took
soft-news stories about celebrities, to reports on crime and politics. the story to be true. A link to the story was tweeted by
Michael Flynn saying “U decide - NYPD Blows Whistle
It is the use of fake news in politics that causes most concern. The
on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes
use of fake news to create negative perceptions of political candidates
w Children, etc. ... MUST READ!” Flynn who was Donald
has been a feature of recent elections and referenda across the world.
Trump’s National Security Advisor for a short while after
This type of fake news is created with a very specific political agenda
Trump became president.
and will use social media to target stories towards people who may
The circulation of this fake news story culminated in a man
firing three shots in the restaurant as he ‘investigated’
the allegations. Fortunately, no one was harmed but
later 28% of Americans in a poll still believed the story
or were ‘not sure’ that it was false. 46% of Trump voters,
however, still thought the story was true. Subsequently,
the FBI have investigated the possibility that there was
Russian involvement in the generation and circulation
of the story.

A headline from Now Magazine and The Evening Standard

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173. The Search for Truth: The Rise of Fake News www.curriculum-press.co.uk

Facebook has acted to try to ensure that there are more stringent checks on
where news stories are coming from before they are circulated on this social
media platform. Facebook users are able to report suspected fake news and,
once identified, these stories are removed. Unfortunately, this can take some
time. On October 2nd, the day of the shooting in Las Vegas, fake news stories
reporting that the shooter was a Clinton supporter, a member of the anti-fascist
movement, were posted on Facebook. They were later removed but the ideas
had begun to be repeated on social media.

Activity
Consider the following:
• How might you check if a story you are reading is true or fake?
• Why do some people see fake news as a major problem?
• How can you minimise the chance that you’ll be fooled by a fake news story?

The next Factsheet on fake news will look more at the impact of social media on the spread of fake news and the methods used by those who
create it to try to ensure it is circulated as widely as possible. It will also consider further, how audiences and institutions are acting to try to
stem the tide of fake news – or at least how to tell fact from fiction.

Acknowledgements: This Media Factsheet was researched and written by Steph Hendry and published in January 2018 by Curriculum
Press. Media Studies Factsheets may be copied free of charge by teaching staff or students, provided that their school is a registered
subscriber. No part of these Factsheets may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any other form or by any other
means, without the prior permission of the publisher. ISSN 1351-5136