How and why communicators should fight the ‘fake news’ scourge

We’ve all heard the term “fake news” bandied about.

Yet how often do we consider its implications? It’s not just a journalism problem; this scourge profoundly affects PR pros, too.

John McCain wrote a powerful op-ed piece for The Washington Post in January titled, “Mr. President, stop attacking the press.” In it, he decries the weaponization of the term.

One of his most salient comments underscores what that weaponization entails:

The phrase “fake news”— granted legitimacy by an American president—is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.

This assault on truth is a major issue for all communicators, and finding ways to combat it should be a priority for every PR pro.

Recognizing what’s at stake

The charge of “fake news” enables a sweeping devaluation of our news media partners. It empowers individuals to dismiss as “fake” anything they don’t like or don’t want to believe. It drives each of us to cultivate our own stunted garden of confirmation bias—tending solely to those things we already believe. Also, it fuels sensationalist social media sharing with little regard for a link’s source or credibility.

All PR pros should care deeply about this issue. Our work, in all its best forms, cannot function without an open, vibrant and diverse media landscape. Many of us decry the current situation, yet our industry has not fully grasped what is at stake.

[RELATED: Get the skills you need to become a trusted advisor to leaders.]

Fighting a public health crisis

Alan Miller, founder of The News Literacy Project, calls the epidemic of “fake news” a public health crisis. Considering this issue as a public health crisis—rather than an abstract, intractable problem—gives us an education- and action-based framework for combating misinformation.

Based on ideas generated with the PR Council in supporting The News Literacy Project, below are examples of education and action that we can all vow to undertake in our professional and personal lives.

Clarifying what ‘fake news’ is and is not

“Fake news” is a specific misinformation strategy. Many people conflate rumors, hoaxes, false claims, mistakes in journalism or simply a news story they don’t like as “fake news.” Using the term loosely or as a smear tactic obscures the issue and sows more confusion.

The first thing we can all do as PR professionals is to be more precise in our language. We can also be more thorough in our research.

Is a link clearly a doctored fraud? Is an article a racist or xenophobic screed dressed up as “news”? Is it propaganda or misinformation? Is it spam designed to make a buck on clicks?

Go deeper; call things out for what they are.

Adopt and teach these seven tips to change behavior when it comes to what we read, hear and share:

  1. Check your emotions. Don’t let misinformation hijack your rational mind.
  2. Determine the purpose of what you are reading or hearing. What’s really behind it? What is it trying to get you to do—and why?
  3. Be aware of your own biases. Even the most media-savvy among us are vulnerable to unconscious biases.
  4. Consider the message. It is too perfect? Does it claim to peddle a “secret” no one else knows? Be skeptical.
  5. Search for more information and cross-check whether something has already been debunked. Make sure the source has been confirmed by credible sources.
  6. Go deeper on the source and who is behind the content. Make sure the publisher is credible and not a pot-stirring agitator.
  7. Thoroughly examine the content. Conduct a reverse image search, and strive to independently verify specific facts cited in a story.

Visit The News Literacy Project  to learn more. Also, PR pros must get smarter, bolder and louder on this issue. The more accountable we are as an industry, and the more committed we are to education and tangible action in the fight against fake news, the better off we’ll all be.

Anne Green is president and CEO of CooperKatz. A version of this post first ran on the CooperKatz blog.

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