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News Is Like Fake Diamonds

11/06/2017 - 14h18



A journalist receives a ten-second video which shows a dying woman apparently being molested. Aware that the images are circulating on social networks, he immediately produces an indignant news report which is published in the Indian newspaper "The Hindu".

The news story was based upon a false interpretation, which was pointed out by the newspaper's Ombudsman. "When indignation trumps verification", summarized A.S. Panneerselvan. A longer version of the video made it clear that the man was trying to help a wounded woman.

The newspaper's editor assumed responsibility for the mistake, published an apology, removed the text from the publication's electronic pages and created a group to review sensitive stories before publishing them.

The episode illustrates the fact that questioning journalistic practices is a worldwide phenomenon.

Panneerselvan was the host of the annual ONO (Organization of News Ombudsmen) conference, which was held in Chennai, India, at the end of October. For five days, Ombudsmen, Public Editors, reader advocates and scholars from 15 countries spread out over more than four continents discussed the growing lack of confidence in the media and the many challenges and dangers arising from the massive propagation of fake news.

At the conference, a rich study of digital media consumption habits in 36 countries conducted by the Reuters Institute/University of Oxford was released.

One of the most alarming findings was the revelation that only 40% of readers believe that traditional media manages to disassociate fact from rumor. The research coordinator, Ramus Kleis Nielsen, confirmed that the degree of confidence in news organizations and trust in the news itself decreases as polarization increases in societies. "Many of the groups heard from revealed that they were aware that the vast majority of fake news stories are generated by political interests".

In the opinion of the current ONO President, Esther Enkin, the discussions regarding fake news and false equivalency (treating themes with different levels of importance with equal journalistic weight) are core questions for any Ombudsman. "Organizations that prove and demonstrate transparency and responsibility will increase their level of trust", said Enkin, Ombudsman for CBC, the Canadian Public Broadcasting Corporation.

In the opening session of the debate on fake news, Ignza Staud, Ombudsman for the Swedish group Tamedia, pointed out that fake news had already been circulating hundreds of years ago, like that of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, who ordered scenes of a military victory that didn't take place to be engraved on the walls of a temple.

Staud emphasized that the current definition of fake news is more and more fluid, mixing bad faith, errors and political and economic opportunism together in the same package.

The Reuters Institute study provided an insight into what the public today associates with the expression "fake news". Readers consider it to be everything from satirical publications to camouflaged advertising, including political advertising and propaganda as well as superficial and sensationalist journalism.

Ignaz Staud cited a phrase from Margaret Sullivan, the former Public Editor for The New York Times, who believes that the expression has lost its meaning due to a lack of precision. Sometimes, it simply means news that a certain observer doesn't want to hear. "[We have to] call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name. To refer to all of this as fake news is way too imprecise", Sullivan declared.

Fake news stores are like fake diamonds: They fool those who don't know how to recognize a fake jewel, but their brilliance fractures like graphite when exposed to the light.

The International Ombudsmen Conference did not seek to draw conclusions, but rather to gather experiences, share analyses and discuss new procedures that strengthen the quality of journalism, and consequently, reader trust. The world's primary news organizations are dedicated to such a project because they have concluded that it embodies the reason for their existence.

Translated by LLOYD HARDER

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