Are ads eroding the public’s faith in journalism and enabling fake news culture?

Media Slap Fake News panel

At a time when news brands are trying to communicate their inherent value and rebuild trust with readers amid a cacophony of fake news allegations, are bad advertising practices stymying their progress?

The Trumpian categorisation of fake news is a modern media phenomenon but as Dietmar Schantin, founder of the Institute for Media Strategies, pointed out, the practice of dishonesty in the press has been around since its inception.

A prescient example is the case of the 'Man-Bats on the Moon'. In 1835, the New York Sun serialised sensational coverage of giant man-bats on the moon. They were reportedly glimpsed by scientists in South Africa through a super-powerful telescope. The 'finding' piqued interest in the publication and swelled subscriptions. The New York Sun continued to benefit from the fabrication even after scientists counteracted the illustrious falsehoods as circulation stayed up and the newspaper never printed a retraction on the story.

Nowadays one would hope such a scandal would hopefully be more difficult to pull off. However, the public is still being duped, albeit with a more mundane slew of stories.

There is a contingent of sites profiting from fake news, or delivering propaganda, which has negative effects on the wider news ecosystem. “It all comes back to trust,” stated Schantin. One way to reclaim trust is by running bespoke fact checking teams such as Le Monde’s Decoders, BBC News’ Permanent Reality Check and the Independent’s InFact.

The investigation arose at The Drum’s Media Slap conference at Google HQ last Friday (24 November). On the panel was Schantin, accompanied by Gavin Johnson, managing director UK of Joe Media; Orit Kopel, co-founder and vice president of business development of WikiTribune; Christian Broughton, editor of the Independent and Craig Swidler, head of EMEA, at analytics company Parse.LY.

Moderator and The Drum deputy editor Cameron Clarke led the panel through the causes and solutions to the fake news issue, broaching a breadth of issues around the fake news topic, which news brands are actively creating bespoke marketing campaigns to overcome.

The Facts

The Independent’s Broughton noted that the paper's fact-checking segment InFact may not perform as well as the fake news stories it debunks, but put forward that it “is a very popular section” nonetheless. It was created to put a spotlight on the more cynical use of bad stats and stories, most recently around Trump and Brexit: the Brexit Bus and its spurious £350m a week to the NHS if the UK leaves EU claim birthed the section.

“There was a very interesting network between politicians and the media to get a vast number of voters to believe the same thing. We are not free of that debate yet,” he added.

As he said this, Schantin informed Broughton of a fake news story sitting on the Independent site. It was about a pastor who was eaten by a crocodile while attempting to walk on water.

“Commitments to solid journalism is really the answer,” Broughton said.

Mistakes: quantity and speed at scale

Broughton distanced the rise of digital publishing from the issue of fake news. “There has never been a perfect platform for accuracy be it digital, TV or print, it goes way back.” He went on: “Most publishers do get hoodwinked at some point, no matter how much fact checking gets done, it is done by humans and humans make mistakes."

Parse.LY’s Swidler on the other hand said that the rise of digital has sped up the turnaround of news, which has its own inherent problems. “A lot of the issues arise from the rush to get to a story first [and] this is very easy to do first – when the story is not true. When you’re redistributing other stories or breaking news, you want to be first, there are advantages on the social media platforms to get there first too. That is why many of the mistakes are made.”

But digital has its peaks, and publishers at least appear to be moving away from the quality over quantity model. Swidler assured that “all publishers are looking at” experimenting with consumer-driven models, with less traffic on driving clicks and traffic. News brands are now reportedly looking at quality of engagement or viewer loyalty (returns across a given month) as a means of monetising audiences with viable ecommerce models.

WikiTribune’s Kopel blamed the fact that most publishers are in fact primarily reliant on the ad-supported revenue model as a major driver of distrust among readers. She used the opportunity to discuss the virtues of the newly created, Wikipedia-backed WikiTribune journalism site.

It is ad-free and relies upon professional journalists and Wiki volunteers who can edit articles at will, a more crowdsourced effort than is common. A unique selling point is the fact all changes made to the copy are recorded and shared on the site as part of the group’s commitment to transparency, meaning the nuts and bolts of reporting that most publishers keep under wraps are exposed. In the screengrab below, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales appears to have made a few changes to the editorial, demonstrating how hands-on he currently is with the project.

Kopel put forward this new model as a solution to the lack of trust in publishers, stating that Wikipedia is where most web users go to check facts first anyway. “We want to bring some original content and more transparency where people read and they learn something. It will sort a lot of problems in biased news, having many editors it contributes to the neutrality with people from many backgrounds adding their perspective.”

The issue of who is indeed legally responsible for publishing the content came up. Kopel assured that WikiTribune is still in talks with lawyers about how best to position itself as liable for the content that is published but assured “Wikipedia was never sued for libel, it is a little different with news but we will verify the facts first, there won’t be a higher risk than other sites”.

“There are trust issues because of the ad revenue business models traditional publications rely on. This creates a lot of the click-based content, as they gather revenue only by the clicks."

As part of the same discussion, Joe Media, the male-orientated publication, claimed all of its content is completely original, a unique standout when compared to some of its closest rivals. Its managing director Johnson explained that the company is fully ad supported – but that doesn't hamper its reputation among its 80% male audience.

“We are 100% reliant on ad revenue and it is not about the clicks, it is about engagement and building the audiences, having a position that really works. We are finding a real sweet spot, we feel like we are at the top of the curve of what digital publishers will really about.”

It counts among its partnerships Microsoft – and soon Cadbury – as it looks to work with brands to create desirable and funded content for its audience.

Ads vs editorial

Native and sponsored content came under the microscope, with their position in eroding faith in news being questioned. Schantin warned that readers have real trouble distinguishing between it and editorial.

“There are so many different ways to do it, sponsored and native and more, as soon as you start trying to trick people into things, it gets complicated. Sponsored content on your website, if it is useful, I as a consumer I don’t mind. But if it gets into a sneaky area for a quick dollar, I will never click on that website again.”

He added: “Build quality and ask for money for your content. I believe this is the way out of the situation.”

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