Jonathan Heawood: "Fake news is contaminating journalism"

In a speech at Westminster Media Forum, Jonathan Heawood highlighted the threat to journalism fake news has become.
Delegates came from all over the world to hear about, and comment on, the fake news phenomenon and the very real risk it poses to the modern media.
IMPRESS CEO Jonathan Heawood spoke on the topic with regards to press regulation's role in the fake news pandemic. Representatives from Facebook, The Guardian, ipso and Russia Today spoke at the half-day seminar which was chaired by Baroness Wheatcroft.

His Speech was as follows…

"There are two big questions about fake news.

Firstly, what is it?

And secondly, what isn’t it?

So what is it?

At IMPRESS, we define fake news as the knowing and consistent publication of predominantly false information in the guise of news. In other words, it is information that looks like news but is not news.

We think it is wrong to confuse fake news with bad journalism. Even the best journalists can make mistakes. And even the worst journalists can sometimes get things right. Some sites are not ‘fake news’; they are simply news publications with poor standards of journalism.

Nor is fake news simply news you disagree with. Print and digital publishers in the UK are free to be partisan. Even an impartial broadcaster might present a story in a way that antagonises you. But that does not make it fake news. If we used the term in this subjective way, all news ever produced would be ‘fake’ to someone, somewhere.

In fact, the weaponisation of the term ‘fake news’ to justify political attacks on the media may pose a greater threat than fake news itself. It deepens the trust crisis that is already plaguing our news economy, and contributing to a crisis in democracy. That is why we need to be very precise in our use of the term, and not conflate fake news with either bad journalism or news you disagree with.

So the fake news phenomenon encompasses both fake news itself and the use of the term to denigrate professional journalism. That is why we are all talking about fake news, and that is why we are talking about regulation: because the civic role of journalism is in danger.

The public do not trust the news media. As a result, they are open to fake news. And because they do not understand or respect the difference between fake and professional news, they trust the news media even less. The fake news phenomenon is contaminating the whole industry and the whole civic purpose of journalism.

How do we get out of this vicious cycle? How do we restore public trust in the news media?

There have been many surveys of trust in journalism, asking many questions. Let us stand back from them for a moment and look at the bigger picture. What is trust?

According to one definition, trust is ‘a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another’.

According to another definition, it is ‘an individual’s expectation that some organised system will act with predictability and goodwill’.

When we trust someone, we place ourselves in their hands. We accept their power over us because we believe they have our interests at heart.

The lack of trust is the opposite. We recognise the power of an institution, but we do not believe it will use this power in our interests.

Research shows that there are four pillars of trust:

  • Ability. We want to know whether this person or company has the relevant skill, understanding and professionalism.
  • Benevolence. Do they show interest in our lives?
  • Integrity. Do they live out their organisational values?
  • Predictability. Do they have a consistent track record?

How do these pillars translate into journalism?

Well, other research has found a range of factors that audiences look for when they are choosing whether to place their trust in a particular news source. They are looking for sites that are, among other things, objective, independent and reliable.

How do they know whether a site is objective, independent or reliable? They look for indicators like an ethics policy, a corrections policy and whether an ombudsperson is available to resolve any complaints.

In other words, audiences are prepared to place their trust in news organisations, but they need to see that the organisation is prepared to do something in return. They need to see evidence of its ability, its benevolence, its integrity and its predictability. And crucially, they need to see some kind of external accountability.

That is one of the reasons why a growing number of news publications have signed up to be regulated by IMPRESS. Our membership is going up all the time, but last time I checked, the figures looked like this:

  • We regulate 33 publishers, responsible for 60 publications, reaching an estimated 2.5 million readers per month.
  • A further 22 publishers are undergoing compliance checks.
  • 69 complaints have been received.
  • One complaint has reached adjudication.
  • One arbitration has been completed.

The publishers who are joining IMPRESS see the value in a form of independent and effective regulation that helps them to earn their audience’s trust. By holding themselves accountable under our code, they demonstrate their professional standards. They make a public commitment to be transparent about their interests, and to treat anyone who complains to them with respect. In return, they get to display our trust mark in their publications and on their websites.

Ability. Benevolence. Integrity. Predictability. All of these four pillars can be applied to journalism, and demonstrated through independent and effective regulation. Thereby, news publications can build their audience’s trust, and mitigate the fake news phenomenon.

Of course, independent regulation is not the only response to fake news. Some news brands may be big enough and trusted enough to believe they can weather the storm. But I would urge them to think that through very carefully.

Trust cannot be taken for granted in this era of extreme scepticism. And every drop in trust that affects an individual publisher affects the wider industry. Every drop in trust in the media affects democracy, as we search in vain for a shared foundation of facts on which to base our political choices. And that is a problem for all of us.

Thank you."

More from Westminster Media Forum here…