On 21st February 2018, Medianama held a discussion in Delhi, on Fake News and Online Content Regulation, with support from Facebook. The following are notes from the first panel on ‘How Newsrooms deal with Fake News’.
How does a newsroom deal with Fake News and how bad is it right now?
Nidhi Razdan, Executive Editor at NDTV started with an example, “There was a news story doing the rounds of Twitter that Pakistan had made Mandarin an official language. A lot of credible news websites picked this up. Even leading Pakistan journalists retweeted some of them. Our filter is very simple though. We mailed it to our reporter in Karachi and she said no it’s not true. That’s when we shut it down, that’s one way of dealing with it.” The story continued to do the rounds on multiple credible news sites for a day and even longer on social media. The simple first step to tackle fake news may lie in only reporting to information that can be directly confirmed by your own sources. Razdan said that at NDTV, “Even if something goes viral on social media, we will not touch it if it’s not been verified by our own reporters.”
To debunk or not to debunk?
But what about debunking the story instead of just avoiding it all together? Why not examine the facts and disprove the hoax? “Why debunk it if you haven’t carried it? Don’t give it credence at all. But at times when a rumour spreads, anything that endangers someone’s life, I think you need to counter that with an official statement like from the police. We may need to rework how we are doing some of this,” Razdan said.
Saikat Dutta, the South Asia editor of Asia Times shared anecdotes on how the issue impacts reporting from a broader regional perspective. “One day I saw a columnist from Pakistan, put up a column cursing India. These criticisms had to be based on facts and there were no facts. This made us think, why are we carrying this kind of content? It is going to have an adverse effect on people in different markets across the region. There’s a lot of cross-functional writing happening, Bangladeshi writers writing about India, Indian writers writing about China etc. A lot of interplay of tension comes into the fray here. We had to figure out a model where writers writing across regions have regional editors step in when needed. A regional editor will be able to then figure out the fake or unsubstantiated parts of the story,” he said.
“We have to start doing what we called classic journalism. Now there are fancy names like fact checking so and so forth. But classic journalism was always about getting the facts right.” he added.
Karnika Kohli of the Wire talked about a dedicated effort for debunking fake stories, “We need to start looking at debunking fake news as a business model. Because for us at the Wire some of the top read stories are ones that debunk fake news. If a site like NDTV can have an offbeat section to push viral stories and make an investment on that then why not a debunking section?”
Razdan agreed, “In the course of this discussion over the last hour I’ll say that now I completely agree with you. This is something that I’ll go back and propose.”
Newsroom structures are aiding the problem
But despite these checks and balances news organisations are failing to deal with fake news, Why? Aditya Berlia of the Svarn-Apeejay Journalism Foundation believes it comes down to how much time does an average reporter get to write a story. “We have seen this in top newsrooms in India especially in online news desks, reporters sometimes have to do minimum five stories a day. If something pops up on social media, they usually have a limited 15-20 minutes to figure out if it is serious. When one credible outlet accidentally puts something out there everybody else assumes that somebody has done the fact-checking and the story is quickly rewritten and posted.” This creates a cascading effect where once a single credible publication carries something dodgy, others follow suit often quoting and linking back to each other. This is what gives fake news a lot of its legs in mainstream coverage, all it needs to do is to breach the wall once.
But is there an incentive to fact checking in newsrooms today especially with audience metrics like TV ratings and clicks driving the business? “I don’t think much of what’s happening today is journalism anyways. Frankly, fake news factories exist within news organisations also. They perpetrate fake news, they generate fake news and I think that’s a serious question we have to reflect on,” Razdan said. “There is so much misinformation out there. How much are you going to end up countering and how much are you going to end up giving credence to. TV debates are happening over fake photographs from social media. It has happened to a very good organisation in the recent past and that’s very troubling”
Arvind Jha of Pariskha Labs put forth a question, “One of the reasons of fake news is the pressure to get out there quick. Sometime back a movement started there should be slow news. Do you think that newsrooms have started doing slow news? With deep fact checking, making sure all the sources are credible, making sure all the research is okay?”
Razdan said that “Honestly nobody is doing that. We are doing that and we get thrashed in the ratings. Because we are often the last to put something on because we have to verify it. But most people are not doing that.”
Is fake news a product of misplaced priorities by news organisations? Saikat Datta thought so, “Why is there fake news? Because news organisations are not investing in the one thing that made them news organisations, that is reporting. Nobody is really supporting good on-ground reporting. As a result, it has created a vacuum where you will try to create the maximum amount of content with the minimum amount of resources. Therefore the vacuum has been filled up by what we call fake news. Journalists are being disenfranchised.”
Datta later added, “Bring journalists back into the conversation, let journalists who have put in a lot of years working on this come back to positions where they’ll be able to take decisions. That is how you will push back against this.”
Former editor of the Business Today, Chaitanya Kalbag chimed in, “I have four suggestions. Number one, I haven’t heard anyone so far talk the value of training. The only answer is a constant cycle of training where we drill it into every single journalist repeatedly so that they improve their specialisation, ethics and so on. That is not happening in our organisations. Number two, editors need to be held accountable for mistakes related to fake news and this is not happening enough. When I was an editor at Reuters my target was 0.5% errors, which is one mistake in 200 stories and that mistake had to be corrected immediately. An editor’s career progression and bonuses were entirely based on whether they were accurate or not. Number three, quality control. Each news organisation needs to have quality control unit within itself because then you will have a daily naming and shaming of mistakes made. And number four, you need trained watchdogs who are able to catch fake news when it occurs. Most of the stuff we deal with these days are visual; photos or videos. The number of shocking photoshopped images have been caught by sharp-eyed editors in the past is amazing.”
“When you have a credible organisation based on these pillars, that starts to become a go-to place for people who don’t know where to look when they get flooded with morning Whatsapp posts.” Chaitanya added.
Weaponisation of information
The indictment put out by Robert Mueller laid out a detailed picture of how the Russian government used fake news and misinformation to influence American voters. The organisation which the Russian Intelligence put together sought in part, to conduct what it called “information warfare against the United States of America” through fictitious US personas on social media platforms and other Internet-based media.
India is about the enter an election cycle where there is war happening between political parties when it comes to generating false information and fake news. Razdan said “There is another source of fake news and that is politicians. It’s going to get worse as we get into the general elections because there will be charges and counter-charges. This is where news organisations have to engage in basic fact-checking. Amit Shah claimed in a rally that there was no FIR against an accused who was a BJP MLA’s son and went on to communalise it. That was a flat-out lie, there was an FIR. So we immediately called that out, the BJP president is wrong. How many organisations did that? They just regurgitate what is said without fact-checking. It is something that needs both ability and intent.”
The blurring of lines between what is news and what is opinion is also adding to the problem, Berlia said, “Historically all good journalism outlets have put opinions very far away from their news space. Today you go to the front page of The New York Times and you can’t figure out what is opinion and what is reporting anymore.”
Outsourced fact-checking: Is that the solution?
With news organisations facing an onslaught of fake news is the outsourcing of fact-checking a prudent solution? If there is a limitation of personnel in newsrooms, a dedicated external entity that deals with fact checking may help solve the problem. Razdan didn’t entirely agree, “We are working with IndiaSpend on this. We post some of the stories they have worked and they have done a great job at this.” But she felt some onus may still rest on the newsrooms themselves, “The stuff that Pratik Sinha (Founder, AltNews) does is something we all should be able to do in every news organisation. It doesn’t take very long to do that.”
That addressed the ability to fact check, but what about intent? Datta said, “Some news channels are not interested in fact-checking. For example, you have a very serious so-called anchor talking about GPS chips being present in Rs 2000 notes and how they will emanate signals. This is basic science, this doesn’t make sense.”
News organisations and digital platforms
As news media continues its push into the digital domain, they find themselves more and more at the mercy of platforms. Yet these platforms are among the biggest amplifiers of fake news. False information and rumours spread very quickly on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter among others. As platforms engage with news organisations to bring more content on board the question to be asked is are they equipped to deal with news? Datta had some concerns, “Some of these platforms like Facebook and Twitter who are dealing with news partnerships don’t have journalists on those teams. So someone with an MBA is telling a journalist how to do things.” The solution may lie in pressuring these platforms to get their acts together. Unilever recently threatened to pull advertising from several online platforms if they fail to deal with misinformation and hate speech. “What I’m hoping we will see is that advertisers start penalising these platforms for not dealing with this issue seriously.”
Rajesh Lalwani of Scenario Consulting agreed, “As the pressure on the platforms and news organisation’s bottom line increases they will start to understand the need to cut back on this. The moment the advertisers step back, that’s where the money is in this click-based business, this problem is only going to get stopped then.”