What’s wrong with journalism today: Part 1 – Fake News

December 21, 2016

The sudden global interest in “fake news” sparked by the US elections and allegations of Russian interference to support Trump’s campaign has led several IA readers to contact me asking why both the mainstream media and the alternative social journalism sphere both seem to lie with impunity, or at least are prepared to promote unverified rumour as actual news.

I’ve attempted to provide some answers in recent weeks in terms of the so-called “post-truth” media landscape, the widespread dissemination of propaganda in the guise of independent reporting and the deliberate misinformation spread by both the Clinton and the Trump camps during the election season.

But it seems that these are only partial explanations that deal with the surface issues and practicalities, without delving deeper into the psychological, philosophical and intellectual roots of the problem. This week I thought I might attempt to answer some of these more puzzling questions.

It must be true, it’s on Facebook

A good example of the confusing feedback loop between journalism and social media is this illustration, which was sent to me by a friend on Facebook. How do we account for this deliberate attempt to tailor perspectives and expectations when it is done by a so-called “respectable” publication, the Wall Street Journal?

The ‘Trump softens his tone’ headline was for the New York market, which is more soft-l liberal and therefore inclined not to like the idea of Trump’s wall. The ‘Trump talks tough on wall’ headline was for the Texas edition of the WSJ. In Texas there is likely to be more support for the idea of a wall on the border with Mexico. This manipulation might be simply about pandering to a particular demographic and, given the headline is always bait to hook the casual reader, in this case it’s straightforward: a “gung-ho” headline for the rednecks and a softer tone for the liberals of New York.

However, it’s not true. The meme circulating on social media with the photograph shown here was itself faked. The WSJ copies in question are from 31 August this year and, according to the myth-busting website Snopes, they represent and early (on the left) and late edition (on the right).

So, who is fooling whom? It is difficult to tell. We trust our friends and when they circulate material into our newsfeed on Facebook, we want to believe them, we assume the information they present to us is true.

But what if they don’t check? The original tweet alleging the WSJ scam was retweeted more than 2000 times.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/ScottAdamsSays”>@ScottAdamsSays</a&gt; Same paper, same day, same article. Different areas = different title <a href=”https://t.co/5lD9o4KN3S”>pic.twitter.com/5lD9o4KN3S</a></p>&mdash; John Ryder (@KHyperborea) <a href=”https://twitter.com/KHyperborea/status/771715650033029120″>September 2, 2016</a></blockquote>

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As you can see from the comment thread this tweet generated, plenty of people – and especially Trump supporters – were inclined to believe it. The belief comes because the prejudice of conservatives (Of course, the WSJ is lying, it supports Hillary) are confirmed and they are more than happy to accept it as gospel, without checking. But Hillary supporters also want to believe that the WSJ was secretly aiding the Trump campaign. Both lies can’t be true.

wsj-changes-headline-in-different-markets-screenshot-www-facebook-com-2016-12-14-11-11-01

Figure 1: We believe what we want to, but is it true?

What really happened is that Trump was presenting two different messages on the same day, which was a hallmark of his campaign. The original headline referred to a meeting Trump had with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto in which he took ‘a remarkably subdued and cooperative tone’, according to reports. The WSJ story was updated following a speech by Trump, later the same day, in which he made the yet-to-be-tested promise/threat that he would make Mexico pay for the infamous “wall” he pledged to build on the USA’s southern border. The speech was after, but close on the heels of his visit to Mexico.

In this example, the problem was not the Wall Street Journal, it was (and is) Donald J Trump. In this case the WSJ was legitimately updating its coverage of Trump’s campaign and quite rightly highlighted the shift in his rhetoric – a softer tone for the Mexican president and a belligerent outburst for his domestic supporters. Both Trump and Clinton supporters were prepared to believe that the WSJ had doctored its coverage, and social media helped both sides to spread misinformation to their own supporters and followers. However, there are clear cases where, for whatever reason, journalists get it wrong.

Read the rest of this story at Independent Australia.


#Pizzagate and post-truth journalism

December 16, 2016

I have started writing my next book, a ‘how to’ manual people outside the mainstream keen to work in the news media. I’m hopeful that Navigating Social Journalism will be a ‘best-seller’ and that it will help mobilise a new army of motivated and politically-savvy citizen journalists to fill the information void left by the declining mainstream media.

In my humble opinion, the timing for this tome couldn’t be better, because this year we have seen the news media caught with its collective pants around its ankles as a tide of fake news washes over the planet. As 2016 winds down, it’s a good time to take stock of what has been, to say the least, an interesting year in the field of journalism.

Is it time to say “bye-bye” to the traditional newsroom?

Newsrooms right around the world are shrinking, and this is an opportunity for the social journalists out there to start making (or making up) their own versions of the news. Australia is not immune and this week we heard about the loss of 42 journalists’ positions at News Corp Australia as the company tries to retrieve $40 million in ‘savings’, which is a euphemism for putting more money in Rupert’s pocket at the expense of employees and customers.

Things are no better over at Fairfax Media where jobs are being shed faster than CEO Greg Hywood’s few remaining hairs. In the broadcast media, it’s the same sad story. The ABC is bleeding to death and the commercials are down-sizing in proportion to their shrinking ad revenues.

By my quick count, which I admit is unscientific, there has been in excess of 500 jobs in the Australian news industry disappear in 2016, including 120 at Fairfax, 300 at Australian Regional Media, 20 or more at the ABC and now another 50 or so at News. It’s only going to get worse, with Fairfax reportedly looking at shedding another 1900 jobs over the next three years, and job losses at The Australian will be catastrophic once Rupert dies and his children shut down the rabid vanity publication.

Things are not great on the other side of the ideological media fence. The beacon of progressive journalism (in so far as it goes), The Guardian is losing a reported $AU 89.4 million per year globally and is looking to cut more than 20 per cent of its budget annually to rein in costs. This cut translates to 250 jobs across the paper’s global operations. The Guardian is now asking people to become ‘supporters’ because the Scott Trust, which funds it, is expected to burn its £758m investment in less than a decade. When a once-proud journal puts out the begging bowl to support itself, the end is nigh.

The problem, for all of these media giants is that the rate of profit attached to news is declining as advertisers abandon legacy platforms in favour of digital media – the Internet and mobile Apps. IN a capitalist economy, if there is no return on investment, there is no investment. Unprofitable commodities are no longer produced, and journalism is becoming an unsellable commodity. So where does this leave us, the intelligent citizens desperate for solid, accurate news to inform our world view and animate us to change the world before it’s too late?

If we’re not careful, it could leave us drowning in a giant puddle of media poo. This is such a dire consequence that the Pope has felt compelled to warn us about it.

Does the Pope shit in the woods? Probably, and wipes his arse with copies of Il Globo

Does the Pope shit in the woods? Probably, and wipes his arse with copies of Il Globo

Are we in danger of eating our own shit?

When the Pontiff starts comparing the consumption of ‘fake news’ to coprophagy you know we’re in deep shit (pardon to Papal punning).

Pope Francis told the Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio that spreading disinformation was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do” and using communications for this rather than to educate the public amounted to a sin.

Using precise psychological terms, he said scandal-mongering media risked falling prey to coprophilia, or arousal from excrement, and consumers of these media risked coprophagia, or eating excrement.

The imagery is rather revolting, my lips are pursed just writing about it, let alone having the taste in my mouth. What we really need to do, and the Pope is incapable of thinking beyond the toilet bowl as plate metaphor, is ask ourselves ‘Why has it come to this?’

To find the answer to this question, read the rest of this article at Independent Australia.


Fake news: did it help Trump get to Washington, and The Oz bash the ABC?

November 19, 2016

Did fake news help the deplorable Mr Trump get to Washington?

[First published on Independent Australia 17 November]

Much has been made of the argument that fake pro-Donald news sourced from Ukraine overwhelmed American voters leading them to put a billionaire reality TV ‘star’ in the White House.

But is it actually true? And what is ‘fake news’ anyhow?

There are two, maybe even three, main types of so-called ‘fake news’.

The first, but not necessarily the easiest to spot, is the sort of fake news supplied by The Onion, or The Chaser. This is spoof news and it is usually only the really dumb and gullible who get taken in by it.

The second is the ‘fake news’ produced during the 2016 US presidential race, allegedly on Ukranian websites and allegedly to help Donald Trump. This is a hard story to crack, but the gist of it is that Ukraine and Russia are at loggerheads and there is an undeclared shooting war going on between Kiev (the capital of Ukraine) and Moscow. The US election has been collateral damage in the media war between these Ukraine and Russia.

Trump is seen to be pro-Russian and has praised Vladimir Putin several times for his strong nationalist rhetoric. It seems that pro-Russian websites hosted in the eastern (Russian-dominated) part of Ukraine have been helping the Trump campaign. But just how successful they have been is hard to gauge.

Read the rest of this entry »


Flying Air New Zealand? Bollocks!

May 15, 2010

Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe is signing a giant chuckle all the way to the check-in counter.

Now that several media organisations have piled on to ‘report’ the airline’s new marketing campaign as is if was really ‘news’, Fyfe can have his crumby little biscuit and eat it too.

How is it newsworthy that an executive (advised by an agency creative) launches an advert taking aim at a magazine editor for criticising his business? And really, the criticism reads more like the whinging of a woman accustomed to travelling first or business class, most probably at someone else’s expense; suddenly thrust in among the plebs at the back of the plane:

The public can rightly ask: is Air New Zealand on a path to become a mostly budget airline, and will that come at the expense of the quality service, superior food and wine, safety and courtesy that it offers at the high-margin non-budget end of its business?

[Turbulence ahead, The Listener 15 May, 2010]

Superior food and wine? Please, most airline food is totally unpalatable and the drink offerings from the budget bin.

How many people even read Pamela Stirling’s editorials in The Listener anyway? I gave up  recently after reading one that was an ugly riff on the “I’m not a racist, but…” theme. You know, Chinese are stealing “our” dairy industry and that sort of thing.

In this debate, New Zealanders must ensure their objections are not simply racism in another guise. Would we have the same reaction if the entrepreneurs were Australians? Well, quite possibly, yes, if the proposal was identical.

[Selling the farm: Should we tell the Chinese to get off the grass?, The Listener, 10 April, 2010]

Who cares what Ms Stirling thinks about anything really.

I bet Rob Fyfe doesn’t give a flying proverbial. Air New Zealand just saw a marketing opportunity; pitched a clever little viral campaign and are now quite happy that it has been legitimised as a news story by TV One and the NZ Herald.

Fyfe's loony grimace scares babies

And look at Fyfe in the video, he’s roaring mad (in the insane way).

Let’s just recap some journalism 101 principles here:

News has to have a ‘Who cares’ factor. So really who cares about Air New Zealand having a pretend bust-up with The Listener?

News has to be something of interest to the public. Where’s the public interest in this story; it’s fake news. It’s a media advertising campaign dressed up as a spat between the company and the editor.

There is no public interest here.

News needs to have news values. Conflict’s a good one, so I guess the manufactured conflict (the theme of the Air New Zealand advertising spot) fooled some journos and news editors into thinking they were dealing with a real issue here.

The only thing this whole farce has got going for it is that once again we get to see Rob Fyfe acting badly, showing off and grimacing like a hyena on acid.

Not pretty, not funny, not news.

Bollocks, anyone?


By George – I don’t believe you

April 7, 2008

Seems that George Clooney’s girlfriend is totally wild.

Well, at least according to her very eloquent ex-boyfriend who speaks in totally weird syntax and very structured language, not like a real person. Seriously, check these quotes allegedly given by “Tommy” to the News of the World newspaper:

Tommy recalled: “She made up special love potions and rubbed them into every part of my body. I was powerless to resist. I know George will be no different. He’ll be totally entranced,” he told News of the World.

“Sarah’s a total hippy at heart, heavily into all the spiritual, mystic stuff – crystals, tarot cards, healing.

“And along with her witch-like charms she’s a brilliant fun girl with no inhibitions. She loves nothing more than getting naked in a forest. Read the rest of this entry »