5 ways to avoid misleading audiences with 'Fake News'

JAMES HIBS  •   AUGUST 7, 2017  


2016 was a year defined best by the term “Post-Truth”. Officially, that is. In 2016 Oxford Dictionaries named “Post-Truth” their Word of the Year citing the “EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States” as lenses through which we have seen the declining influence of “objective facts”.

This is most likely due to the rise in the phenomenon dubbed “Fake news”, articles purporting to share important and timely factual information while actually being entirely false in content.

There are multiple different strands of fake news. Some articles are entirely fabricated, rouses concocted with the sole intention of affecting a political sway, gaining financially through the use of ‘click-bait’ headlines or instilling outrage in a populace.

However, some fake news is simply borne out of misinterpretation and misreporting of information.

So how, when composing articles for media, can we avoid this pitfall? Here are 5 tips on how to make sure that all news you report is 100% verifiably true.

1. Consider your title

In 2014 CNN ran with the headline “Ebola in the air? A nightmare that could happen”. The article went on to stress that the World Health Organization have never come across a virus that has ever dramatically changed its mode of transmission, calling such speculation unsubstantiated. In this instance, the headline of the article was a potential source for the spread of drastic misinformation, suggesting that we are in fact in danger of Ebola undergoing such a transition.

The first thing anything anyone will see of your article is your title, giving it an imperative responsibility. Far too often authors will choose a sensational headline over a scrupulous one. Of course, it’s important that headlines are engaging. But ‘click-bait’ headlines are almost always distorted versions of the truth: most of the time the truth simply isn’t that interesting. It’s important to find a middle-ground, wherein your headline is engaging, but factual, rather than spinning wildly out of proportion into the former without considering the latter.

2. Source everything (don’t assume a subject’s opinion as fact)

For articles to take on a specific opinion, particularly when pitted either against or alongside a particularly opinionated subject, is not unusual. However, there is a point at which this can simply become false reporting. More often than not the words of the people you are quoting are not to be taken as gospel. Their rhetoric may either be influenced by a particular point of view and therefore leading in that direction, or they may in fact simply be incorrect. Therefore, while acceptable to quote their opinions, remember to base your own arguments solidly in factually evidenced, fully-sourced research information.

3. Keep Calm and Don’t Exaggerate

All articles have to hold the attention of their readers somehow. While it is an article’s job first and foremost to inform, if it doesn’t entertain, even to the simplest degree, then it’s not going to get read. However, if entertainment becomes the sole, or even primary focus of an article, then it can very quickly become an exaggeration of the truth. If you imagine that the article you’re reporting on will fail to grasp any attention whatsoever, then the chances are that your line of inquiry simply isn’t newsworthy. In any other scenario remain confident in your piece and considerate that it retains a truthful essence.

4. Don’t jump to conclusions

On 1 August 2017 multiple news outlets throughout the UK and abroad began claiming that Facebook had shut down two “Artificial intelligence Robots after they started talking to each other in their own language”. One news outlet accompanied this with an “expert’s warning” that “robot intelligence is dangerous” while another deemed that “the incident closely resembles the plot of The Terminator in which a robot becomes self-aware and starts waging a war on humans”. In truth, this story was taken vastly out of proportion simply due to prejudicial assumptions regarding motivations. The AI bots did not invent “their own language” and Facebook did not shut them down out of some fear of a technological uprising. The bots were simply deemed to be “chatting back and forth in a derived shorthand” and Facebook shut them down out of lack of interest in this behaviour rather than a fear of it: the story had been entirely misunderstood and misreported.

It’s understandable that people would make these assumptions. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Westworld, popular culture is littered with the image of the rogue, lethal AI, beings with questionable levels of sentience but definitively deadly intentions. However, that doesn’t stop these articles from being utterly misleading and a pitfall to avoid. It is important not to make assumptions of this ilk and instead to do proper investigation into motivations behind actions rather than simply assuming them.

5. Don’t underestimate your readers

Far too often articles can be misinterpreted, either in writing or in reading, simply through a lack of explicit, descriptive content. All relevant information should be included. That doesn’t mean this information shouldn’t be explained, justified or reworded for a general audience, but don’t underestimate the average reader’s ability to comprehend a concept when laid out for them. Failing to include vital information could just change the entire sentiment of a piece and lead a reader down an entirely different path than was intended.

Benjamin Thomas