For the second annual speaker series event organized by students in Sheridan’s Public Relations – Corporate Communications program, a panel convened for a talk called “Fact, Fiction and Fake News.” A discussion worth having in this setting according to columnist Michael Quinn of the Calgary Herald, who wrote just days before the April 4 event that “the remedy for this [fake news] malady can come from our publicly-funded post-secondary institutions.”[i]
Panelists included David Common, journalist and anchor of World Report for the CBC, Gabrielle Gallant, Director of Communications to the President of the Treasury Board at the Government of Ontario, and Andrew Lundy, Vice President of Digital at the Canadian Press. In front of an audience of approximately 60 Journalism and Public Relations – Corporate Communications students and faculty, the panel responded to a range of questions put forward by two student moderators and audience members.
Below is a recap of some of that discussion, which has been edited for length and clarity.
How far back before 2016 does fake news go?
Andrew Lundy: It’s not new. It goes back to the days of propaganda used for political reasons, by special interest groups, businesses, and people with axes to grind, or as far back as urban legends. I use Snopes.com almost every day, a site that’s been around for 20, 25 years and originally dealt with urban legends and has now morphed into fact checking for the mainstream political arena, whether it’s related to the Trump administration, the Clinton campaign or the Department of Defense.
How corrosive has fake news become in the news organization?
David Common: I find it grating. I don’t get it as bad as some of my colleagues. It’s corrosive to some level, but the thing that is encouraging is that it’s so easy to complain and spread fake news. It takes a lot of effort to do good journalism and storytelling and I see people doing that every day and audiences engaging with it. I try to stay motivated by that.
Andrew Lundy: What we in the mainstream media may think of as fake news – information that doesn’t have evidentiary support – resonates with some people in bubble cultures who see coverage by the Globe and Mail and CBC News to be fake. I don’t know where we go from there, when solid journalism with all of the qualities that we’ve come to see as essential to that are being cast aside in favour of narratives that make us comfortable in our own presuppositions.
Gabrielle Gallant: As consumers of news, we can vote with our feet. Invest in objective, high-quality journalism and be willing to pay for it. That’s the world I want to live in: where the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are holding Trump to account.
How do you make real news stand out against fake news?
David Common: I’d take exception with the premise. I don’t think we are competing with the same audience. Fake news is easy, it’s outrageous. We’re not going to try and do easy journalism that’s outrageous. There are outrageous things that happen and we can shine a light on those. But I go back to the fundamentals: storytelling. We need to try and tell all stories in great ways. That’s how we engage audiences and be part of a service, brand and community.
Andrew Lundy: Mainstream media has to embrace some of the techniques that fake news uses. Using social platforms and storytelling that’s specific to mobile, digital platforms, rather than repurposing a print or broadcast product. I still see mainstream media dragging their heels coming into the digital age. Some do it well but as a whole we’re not. Fake news hits people where they’re living such as Reddit where the mainstream media doesn’t play.
What is the relationship between social media and fake news? Would we be having this discussion without Facebook or Twitter?
Andrew Lundy: It’s a strong, foundational relationship. I think fake news relies on the breakdown of mainstream media as the gatekeeper. Anyone can put information out there on social. We all have access to it with the potential to reach millions of people. In the past we’ve been used to having professional journalists who’ve been trained for that position. It’s democratized the media at large. It means Trump can be elected, it means Brexit can happen. If we like that, great. It’s a challenge we have to deal with.
Do we need to license journalists?
David Common: But then would it become a badge of honour if you’re not part of that club? Who polices it? Who pays for it? I see the idea of licensing as well-intentioned but with the tremendous potential to backfire. The intent of saying ‘this person is approved’ will prompt many to go in the opposite direction. Humans are funny. We like to think we’re open minded and go off and explore, but we believe something and look for someone to tell us it’s true and then we hang out with those people.
What is your opinion on satire and how the rise of that format has contributed to the prevalence of fake news?
Andrew Lundy: I love satire. I think fake news has sort of blurred the lines between what is satire and what is fake. When shows like John Oliver and The Daily Show are being used as news for people…on the one hand I love it because it’s such an effective delivery mechanism and some can make very compelling cases…but they are comedians and documentarians and will leave out information and portray the side that gets the laughs and resonates with their audience. To be your sole news outlet, I worry about that.
Additional observations by the panelists:
David Common: Those who consume what I consider to be fake news aren’t idiots. They’re people who we, the mainstream media and those in power politically, have ignored for a long time. They’ve seen the economy move past them, can’t get a job or afford college or have seen their town die because the sole employer has gone bust. They’re thinking, why not me? You can draw the dots backwards and figure out why we’re at this point. There’s something really important to healing those fractures. It isn’t easy but the alternative may be really bad.
Gabrielle Gallant: From a PR perspective, you shouldn’t just be talking to the people already buying your brand. You have to ask, why do these fake news stories take root? Why is there such fertile ground for fake news? There’s people that are struggling so much that they’re willing to believe things that are patently false. It reduces the cognitive dissonance that they’re experience. We all work to reduce that dissonance. I consume liberal media because it makes me feel better.
Andrew Lundy: One of the concerns I have is that we’re looking for the other side in the extremes of the other side. There’s a smart conservatism that used to be represented in the mainstream media. Take immigration for example and arguments about the porous southern border. But if I want to voice that side, it’s portrayed in the most extreme way and it shuts down any meaningful discussion. There’s either the democratic underground or Breitbart. Where’s the smart middle where working, stable public policy can come from?
Pictured at top of page (from left to right): Panelists Andrew Lundy, Gabrielle Gallant and David Common
Written by: Keiko Kataoka, Digital Communications Officer at Sheridan