Fake news has always been around, but 2016 saw a spike in stories that were blatantly false or misleading or partially untrue.
This sudden rise in fake news was fueled by a combination of the heated emotions created by the divisive presidential election and the ease of publication and sharing of posts online, particularly on social media.
Facebook and Google were so alarmed by this flood of fake news that they announced they would crack down on fake news stories. This week Robin Rothberg, senior lecturer in communication studies at UNC Charlotte, posted a definition of fake news in the PRSA Open Forum:
Fake news is blatantly false or misleadingly exaggerated information presented as true via a purportedly trustworthy media source. Fake news hurts PR by lessening trust in all media.
Fake news versus ‘bad news’
However, it’s not just fake news that should raise red flags.
“The fictions and fabrications that comprise fake news are but a subset of the larger bad news phenomenon, which also encompasses many forms of shoddy, unresearched, error-filled and deliberately misleading reporting that do a disservice to everyone,” writes Snopes founder David Mikkelson.
How to spot fake news
FactCheck.org offers these tips on how to spot fake news:
1. Consider the source:
One way is to look at the URL. For example, www.abcnews.com.co is not the real ABC News URL. But you have to go further than that—there have been some erroneous news stories on traditional media sites—as Rothberg’s definition says “purportedly trustworthy media sites.”
2. Read beyond the headline:
Before you pass along a story, read to see whether it meets the criteria of a real news item. Often a fake news story will have clearly fake elements in the body of the story.
3. Check the byline/author:
Invest a few moments in checking out the author. A quick search on the author’s name should tell you whether they are legit. Do they have a LinkedIn account? If you use MuckRack, are they listed there? One fake news story said the author won Pulitzer and Peabody prizes. It’s easy to check whether that’s true.
4.Check the supporting sources quoted:
These fake stories often quote other supporting sources—check them out. Nine times out of 10 you’ll find they don’t say the same thing at all. The Boston Tribune site wrongly claimed that President Barack Obama’s mother-in-law was going to get a lifetime government pension for having babysat her granddaughters in the White House, citing “the Civil Service Retirement Act” and providing a link. That link to a government benefits website doesn’t support the claim at all. It all sounds legit, but if you take a few moments to fact-check, you’ll find that it is fake news.
How does fake news affect PR?
As Rothberg’s definition states: Fake news hurts PR by lessening trust in all media. One of the core activities of PR is to get coverage for our brands or clients in media outlets. Media coverage has long had value, because the public trusted what they saw as independent third-party endorsement. As trust in media organizations wanes, so does our value. Fake news can put a serious dent in the trust people have in media placements.
A Gallup poll in September 2016 showed that trust in news media outlets has reached a nadir.
Provide excellent content to your media sources, and make sure every item in your content is fact-checked and verified. Pitch your stories to media outlets and reporters with a solid reputation for integrity and objectivity.