Journalism in Reverse: can Fake News busters replace editors?
Seasoned media professionals have been trying to cool down political fever around the concept of Fake News by pointing out that it is not a new phenomenon. But there is growing consensus that it is taking place in a new “information eco-system” driven by digital technology and novel distribution and dissemination models. More importantly, the news industry is no longer the preserve of journalists and editors but has become the playground for virtually all thanks to the democratic nature of the Internet and the informational floodgate opened by social media. While the traditional “analogue” democracy takes time and effort to destabilise, its digital reflection in the virtual reality is being subjected to an unprecedented attack.
Much has been said and written about on the issue of hybridisation of news and the blurring of lines between hard and soft news. Clearly, those who generate Fake News exploit to the full the growing amorphous nature of the information space to the full by blending in hoaxes with scoops and breaking news with spoofs. Invariably, many discussions on how to tackle Fake News end up with calls for measures to protect quality journalism or for some forms of regulation. Enthusiasts of the fast-growing fact-checking industry want to see it as the promising way forward.
None of these approaches want to confront the root cause of why Fake News is being such a malignant success. Complaints about falling journalistic standards dominate discussions amid calls for better professional training or including media literacy courses in school curricula. British audiences have been raised through generations on a diet of media outputs of extraordinary quality safeguarded by robust public service broadcasting – the envy of the rest of the world. They are among the most sophisticated and demanding media consumers globally, and yet they end up being victims of Fake News just as other nations do.
There is nothing wrong with British journalism, either. Thousands of UK media professionals and many British organisations train, advise and consult on journalism and the media worldwide. Recent scandals and failures such as the phone-hacking by the tabloids, however outrageous, are exceptions rather than a rule in comparison with journalistic standards and practices in numerous other countries.
What is essentially wrong with the Western media is the progressing destruction not of journalism as such, but of the editorial process. It is not only the most expensive aspect of generating quality media content, but also least convenient for internet giants and most troublesome for politicians. This pincer movement on the editorial office as we know it has already resulted in thousands of redundancies across the UK as newsrooms digitise, integrate and consolidate. Experienced editors with unique, albeit non-digital skills are being replaced by tech-savvy individuals capable of fact-checking but not editing content in the true sense of the word.
By the time “content curation” as a replacement for bona fide editing process lost its novelty value, the demolition job had been largely done. Mainstream media outlets squeezed by new business models struggle to maintain the semblance of proper editorial processes, but are no longer able to compete with the free-for-all distribution channels which can only be restrained by several giants such as Facebook or Google. But it is a fallacy to expect them to reinstitute editorial procedures as we know them – they will always serve their business interests and rely on algorithmic and software solutions with an admixture of an editorial intervention based on their own discretion and lacking democratic accountability.
And what about fact-checking as the Wunderwaffe against Fake News? Anna Belkina of RT rightly points out that once the Fake News item is out, the damage has been done, and we are only left with damage limitation measures. Fact-checking is precisely that: a reactive, or retroactive measure which paradoxically sometimes only boosts the impact of a Fake News story. Fake News busting is also self-limiting: it focuses minds on countering existing information and stories rather than creating news ones. It is equivalent to practicing journalism by negative definition and drags the media into harmful and destructive information wars and confrontational media culture based on the worst possible formula – binarism.
Presenting the world as binary choices through Twitter-length mental shortcuts is a grave danger to the Western democracy based on understanding the truth as a negotiated process informed by the changing context – something precisely embodied in what the editorial process is about. The British professor of media ethics, Tim Crook, says the role of editor in British journalism should remain the pinnacle of professional journalistic achievement. The editorial process must not be left in the hands of multinational corporations and technology giants if we do not want to slide from being guided by the mottos like “Comment is free but the facts are sacred” into the fallacy of the Quixotic world where “the facts are the enemy of the truth”.