Bonus Chapter: Fake news & Trust Chains
 

Bonus Chapter: Fake news, Trust Chains and
the Lose/Gain Test

In this Bonus Chapter, we discuss fake news or false news. We look at what these terms mean for journalists and the different kinds of fake news. Then we give guidance on how journalists can fight fake or false news through good practice and the use of what we call Trust Chains and the Lose/Gain Test.

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Fake news

Fake news or false news can mean one of two things. It can be either:

  • a made-up, untrue story or invented “fact” that has been written or presented to seem genuine, or
  • an accusation that a genuine news story or actual fact is false, in order to undermine it.

Made-up news or facts (meaning 1 above) have been around for centuries. Although there are some rare exceptions when it is permissible to make up so-called “news” – for example in comedy or fiction – overall, false news is wrong and should not be produced by ethical journalists.

The second meaning (2) was made fashionable more recently by US President Donald Trump to describe news stories he disliked, usually because they criticised him. Although Trump started the current popularity of this meaning, many other people now use it, mainly people with power who dislike what professional journalists say about them.

For a full description of the controversy over fake news, you can read this article in TheNewsManual … Now!

Fake news has been around since mankind first started communicating and for hundreds of thousands of years it existed amongst a mixture of myths, legends and provable facts.

What we might recognise today as news only started in western societies a few centuries ago, and then in things like political pamphlets pushing a particular ideology or view of the world. Today's tradition of objective journalism is actually quite modern.

Objective journalism produces stories based on provable facts, supported by evidence, accurately relayed and representing all aspects of any controversy without bias.

This definition of news is the one used in modern democratic, free-speech journalism, of the type supported here in The News Manual. You can read more in several chapters, especially Chapter 56 ‘Facts and Opinions’ in Volume III, Ethics and the Law.

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Different kinds of fake news

There are many kinds of fake or false news and many different reasons why it is produced. In a 2018 UNESCO report titled “Journalism, ‘fake news’ and disinformation”, the editors identified three specific types they called misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. In practice they break down into four types, with increasing levels of wrongdoing:

Genuine errors
At the lower end of the spectrum there is news that is wrong because of mistakes, carelessness, genuine misunderstanding or because the person generating the news or passing it on is not really good at it. This type of “fake news” has always existed and we generally forgive those responsible as “only human”.

Satire
One level down on the scale of harm is news presented as satire – or satire presented as news. This is made-up news printed or broadcast in such a way that it is obvious to readers and viewers that it is not true, just a joke. It is a tradition in many cultures for media to publish such stories on 1 April each year, ‘April Fools Day’. Usually no harm is done and the media organisation commonly identifies the story afterwards or leaves clues within the story showing it is made up. But not everybody sees satire as harmless and people can be very offended when they think they are being fooled or made fun off.

Half-truths
Thirdly there is the kind of disinformation that takes real, provable facts and twists them, usually by selectively quoting some parts but not others. People usually do this to support their own belief system or a specific argument. Some of the news and opinion pieces to do with man-made global warming often fit into this category. It is not good practice, but many people regard it as part of politics.

Manufactured news
The most harmful kind of “fake news” is made up or manufactured in order to deceive, in such a way that it calls black white, it turns the truth on its head and maybe presents concocted evidence. This seems like real news and is the most damaging kind of false news. Repeated often and long enough, this maliciously manufactured “fake news” not only damages the kind of rational discussion necessary for the functioning of democracy, but it leaves readers, listeners and viewers wondering just what they can believe, if anything at all.

It is very rare for such stories to be produced by most reputable media outlets, partly because journalists are trained to be cynical and check facts - there are usually systems of sub-editors and fact-checkers in place to assist - and because the publishers and broadcasters know that their readership and audience numbers depend on people coming back to them for news they can trust.

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Social media and fake news

Social media have been blamed for spreading fake or false news. Indeed, surveys up to 2019 generally show that social media were the most mistrusted of all the modern media.

Social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat are far less trusted than traditional print and broadcasting – what we call “legacy media”. Social media have some very useful functions in the 21st Century, sharing experiences, connecting families and friends, warning of danger so fast even the emergency services use them. They are generally beneficial and here to stay.

But social media are not so good in the production and transmission of news. In some ways they have actually caused the current plague of fake news. The very things that make social media so popular also make them so dangerous in spreading fake news. Anybody can use them, they are instant and there are few controls over content or quality standards.

Social media also play a major role in the “amplification” of false news. One person sharing something with ten people who each share it with 10 more can quickly spread fake news to thousands or millions of people. That is why information or accusations on social media are said to go “viral”, i.e. like a virus in a one’s body.

What also makes fake news so powerful is that it resembles an extreme form of what makes real news, in that it is typically very unusual. Because it is wrong, it is not what people expect so they pass it on as news. The truth – which might be much more ordinary – is not so attractive and is therefore not shared as widely or as quickly.

The journal Science has published research that shows that false news on Twitter spreads faster to more people than the truth.

As the 18th Century Anglo-Irish intellectual Jonathan Swift wrote: “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”.

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Trust chains

One of the main weapons against fake news, for both journalists and their audiences alike, is the Trust Chain.

A Trust Chain is what connects the source of an event – including speeches, interviews etc – with the final reader, viewer or listener, ensuring that the version of facts they receive remains true to the original.

Each time a fact or comment is passed on by someone in the chain, it is a new link that must be checked to make sure it comes from a reliable source who has already checked its accuracy.

The steps to creating and maintaining Trust Chains are simple and should be followed at all times.

Be honest with yourself, about yourself
You should always try to be honest with ourselves and with other people. If we don’t know if something is true, then we should not say it is, even when the admission strikes at the very heart of our own personal worldview. Journalists are also members of society, so are able to have personal opinions of their own. But these must never be allowed to influence your professional work, however hard that might be. Remember to separate the you-at-work from the you-at-home.

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Pass news forward honestly.
Again, whatever you write or broadcast, you must be truthful with your reader, listener or viewer. If you do not know something is true, then either you must not pass it on or you must admit its weakness to your audience. If you cannot confirm that a story or a fact is true yourself, then you must say how accurate – or possibly inaccurate – you are being.

If you know something that is widely known but has not been confirmed, explain that. For example:

It is widely believed that the Prime Minister will announce a new trade agreement with France this afternoon, though no-one in Government will confirm this and the French Embassy has said it is “unlikely”.

Journalists should wherever possible attribute facts or opinions about which there may be dispute. For more on this, see Chapter 56.

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Question doubtful information.
Journalists are more than people who pass on information to their audiences. Anyone can do that but journalists add value through their work by sorting through lots of information to pick out what is newsworthy, then check its truthfulness or accuracy before communicating it in a news item or current affairs story.

Journalists are a bit like food tasters, deciding what is good and what is not so good or actually bad. At first this requires a lot of effort and you will make mistakes. But after a few years your sense of taste – in our case “newsworthiness” – becomes more highly trained and we may even develop a “sixth sense” about information we find or are given.

Be alert to that sixth sense, listen to that voice that asks yourself: “Does this really sound right?”

That little voice is not the answer, but it is an alarm you should listen to. If your sense tells you something is wrong about a piece of information, check it out with greater care than normal. Often you will be right in doing so.

When someone tells us something that sounds even remotely doubtful, ask them: “Who says?” or “How do you know?” Said properly, it doesn’t need to be rude.

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Track suspect information back to its source
The Truth Chain for any news story has a beginning and an end. Unless you have witnessed the start yourself, as a journalist you will usually become part of that process part-way along the chain. If so, you must always think about where the story started. Who first discovered the information? Who first passed it on? Who else has played a role in transmitting it to you?

There is a children’s game in most cultures that relies on people in a line passing on a simple message to the next person until it gets to the last person in the line. It may be called “Chinese whispers”, “the telephone game” or even “the broken telephone”.

The fun in the game is to see how very different even a simple message becomes by being repeated before it reaches the last person.

Journalists cannot afford to play Chinese whispers. We must try to ensure that the message at the end is the same as it was at the beginning. That will often mean going back and asking people before you in the chain to check the accuracy and truth of it, before you yourself pass it on. As you can see, this is not done for laughs; for journalists, getting the truth right is a serious business.

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Distinguish facts from opinions
The News Manual devotes a whole chapter to distinguishing facts from opinions. You can read it here.

Suffice it to say here that the strength of the Trust Chain relies on both (a) knowing the difference and (b) telling your readers, listeners or viewers what each element of your news story is – fact or opinion?

As we explain in Chapter 56, some facts are so clear or so well-documented they can be relayed without attributing them to a source. But any facts that are controversial, contested or less-known and ALL opinions must be attributed.

You can learn more about attribution in Chapter 9 and about sources in Chapter 59.

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Find trusted, tested news sources
As a journalist, you are largely reliant on other people telling you things, so try to find and follow people you know you can trust.

If you work for a professional news outlet, it will have a list of other news organisations – such as news agencies – that provide reliable information which is so vital for a strong Trust Chain.

Again, in Chapter 59 we talk in more detail about sources of information, but be aware that you cannot simply ignore your “sixth sense” if it tells you that something from one of your reliable sources seems doubtful. Check out all information that seems questionable, even if it comes from a previously trustworthy source.

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Check against other professional media
Do not rely on one source for any information you receive that is even slightly doubtful or controversial. Check on multiple sources. Of course, they may all be wrong, but you lessen the chances of making a mistake if you search for good, accurate information as widely as practicable.

Most respectable professional news organisations have a “two-source rule”, meaning they must find at least two reliable and independent sources before they publish or broadcast something important.

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Do not rely on the Internet
The Internet is just a means of moving information around – it is not a guarantee that information is reliable in any way. Websites are no more or less reliable that a social media feed, blog, tweet or post. What matters is the reliability of the people or the organisation behind the website.

As we have seen from the creation of “fake news”, there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world creating fake news, either for their own amusement or because they are paid to do it, usually by a corrupt government or business.

Even when a website appears to belong to a trustworthy organisation, check it out. Check the real website address. For instance, if your backtracking leads to a website purporting to be The Australian newspaper but the URL is something like www.chewbacky123.com, you have to assume it is a “fake news” site, not the real Australian newspaper.

And do not take everything that is written even on real sites as Gospel. Many media organisations push their own views or those of their owners as opinion-disguised-as-fact, maybe telling half-truths or reporting things out of context.

We all have our favourite media we think we can trust, often because their politics or philosophy match our own. But do not take that for granted. Ask yourself: “Where did they get their information from?” If it is from their own correspondent and someone you can trust, then you are far safer than if the article quotes “online opinion”.

Regularly look at other newspapers, radio stations or TV news providers to see what other news sources say. If your favourite news bulletin is out of step with everyone else, it could be that it is better than the rest; but it could also be because it is worse.

The Trust Chain needs to be strong at every link, from the source event all the way to your brain and then all the way to the eyes and ears of your readers, listeners and viewers. After that, it is up to them.

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Judging credibility with the Lose/Gain Test

Fake news – like excessive alcohol or drugs – has a two-fold effect: it dulls our senses and it stops us seeing how dull our senses have become.

Fake or false news delivers incorrect information about things we may need to rely on and it can undermine our confidence in our own judgment, maybe not for everyone or at the time we first hear it, but when we find ourselves repeatedly duped. Not only do we mistrust the source of the fake information, but repeated exposure shakes our faith in genuine, truthful news and in our own judgment. Can we even trust ourselves?

For good journalists, issues of trust and our confidence in exposing fakery are at the very heart of who we are and what we do – the same way pitch-perfect hearing is important to a piano tuner or balance is vital to a gymnast.

No-one is born with the innate ability to tell truth from lies; it is a skill that comes with experience and honest self-examination. This is why older journalists often shake their heads at the gullibility of younger reporters. Why could they not see that a certain piece of information was false?

There are really no short cuts to wisdom, but there are tools journalists can use in the battle against fakes, falsehoods and downright lies.

One of these tools is the Trust Chain we’ve written about above, which basically requires tracking questionable information back to its source, to identify whether or not it is trustworthy. For more on why it is important to identify the source of information, see Chapter 9: Attribution.

The second tool in the fight against fake news is the Lose/Gain Test.

If you know the source of an important item of questionable or contested information – not simply who has repeated or retweeted it – ask yourself:

  • What have they got to gain by saying it?
  • What have they got to lose?

    Generally speaking, if someone has a lot to gain personally and little to lose from their statement, they should be examined more critically than someone who has a lot to lose and little to gain by stating something as fact.

Anyone can be tested.

As a journalist, you can apply the Lose/Gain Test to all sources of information, facts and opinions. It is simply good journalism practice to question the motivation of anyone claiming to be telling you a fact, particularly one that is not immediately obvious or is hard to verify or which runs counter to what are already established and trusted facts.

If the witness to a tragedy tells you they saw “hundreds of people” running from a burning factory but you know the building would not contain that many people, you would naturally question them more deeply to get a more accurate number. You might ask them: “How many do you mean? Dozens? Around fifty? More than 100?” Under calm, structured questioning many people will be able to give more accurate estimates and you can report these with greater confidence.

In many cases, someone may consciously (or subconsciously) give you untrue, exaggerated or misleading information for their own benefit – maybe to make themselves seem more important or maybe less involved. Again, as a journalist you must develop your ability to sense inconsistencies or detect when people are not being wholly honest. You must ask yourself why the informant would want to exaggerate or lie.

Questioning someone’s motives is a useful tool for many professions ranging from medicine to the law, teaching, banking or even religion. But it is essential in journalists who might otherwise be used to relay untruths to your trusting audiences or act as a propagandist for dubious causes and ill-intentioned people.

Journalists are reputed to be cynical, but in reality we should just be sceptical; we should not think everyone lies, we should just assess the truth or otherwise of specific things people say. For more on the difference between cynicism and scepticism, you can read this article in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Testing the experts

The Lose/Gain Test is most usefully applied when people are claiming special expertise on a subject.

If an ordinary person expresses an opinion or claims a fact, it may not have much effect on your readers, viewers or listeners. After all, they come across untruths all the time in their everyday lives so they don’t expect others to always tell the truth and they don’t base their lives on what they hear from unqualified or untested informants.

But people do rely on experts to provide trustworthy information in their specialist fields. Without such trust, modern complex societies could not operate.

In discussing Trust Chains above, we see how a journalist must track important information back to its source, to find out who said something originally and whether they can be trusted. You must authenticate their expertise.

Words do not exist in isolation – much depends on who is saying them. An ordinary person’s views on coronavirus, while interesting or even entertaining, should not carry as much weight as a recognised expert in viral diseases. That is the way modern societies are organised and over recent centuries it has proved to be beneficial – often life-saving – in a host of problems that need solving from health through to road safety.

But sometimes experts disagree, even in their own fields. So we must try to look beyond the contradictory opinion and examine each person’s motive for saying what they say.

The Lose/Gain Test is simply a journalist’s tool for examining motives more objectively when checking the truth of someone’s opinion or unearthing falsehood.

For example, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis in May 2020, public health experts were advising against airline travel unless severe restrictions on “social distancing” were put in place while boarding, seating, serving passengers and disembarking. The airlines, on the other hand, were arguing that aeroplanes were very safe environments in that circulated air was changed frequently and flowed mainly downward from above each passenger, not horizontally between passengers.

Both sides made very compelling arguments, so who was a journalist to believe?

Of course, the objective path was to present both cases honestly and accurately and leave your readers, viewers or listeners to decide.

However, objectivity does not only mean presenting all sides of an argument. Journalists must also act as guides in delivering useful information – and not delivering falsehoods - so we are expected to examine some arguments more critically than others.

In the aeroplane example above, you can do the Loss/Gain Test by asking what each party has to lose or gain by promoting their argument.

The engineers working for the airlines or aeroplane manufacturers will mostly be inclined to support their safety argument because they are paid to do that or they are confident or proud of their expertise. They have a lot to gain. What do they have to lose? Perhaps very little, especially if their colleagues and employers support them and the travelling public want to get back into the air.

Now look at the health experts, using the Loss/Gain Test. What do they have to gain by advising people against airline travel? They will have no personal interest in dissuading people from flying. They may even want to fly themselves – which means their advice is actually a personal Loss for them. What do they have to gain? Well, maybe they wish to seem clever but it unlikely they are being paid by someone in competition with the airline industry, for example bus or train companies. In the case above, the health experts urging caution were usually employed by state and federal governments eager to get people flying again to help with economic recovery. In this case, they had little to gain and much to lose from their opinions.

At the time of writing, while there is one side ahead in the Loss/Gain Test – the health experts – there is no undisputed winner. That will only be determined when people begin flying again, when it will become clear which side was correct.

And just because the airlines and their engineers may be beaten by the health experts in this Lose/Gain Test, it does not mean they were necessarily lying (i.e. deliberately giving false information), but it does mean that they were taking great risks with the truth, something a good journalist should call out whenever you encounter it.

In real life, the Loss/Gain Test is not usually either simple or easy to apply. Conflicting arguments are seldom clear-cut or consistent. But the test does give journalists some guidance in how they should proceed with conflicting opinions or even apparently strange arguments, either from experts or from ordinary people.

And perhaps we should find comfort just how simple and common sense the test can be, by recalling a famous incident in Britain in 1963. It happened in a court trial during the high-profile “Profumo affair”, a scandal that developed when British War Minister John Profumo was revealed to have been visiting a prostitute who was also seeing a military attaché at the Soviet Embassy. When the other prostitute involved, Mandy Rice-Davies, was told by a defence lawyer that the British aristocrat Lord Astor had denied an affair or even having met her, she replied "Well he would, wouldn’t he?"

The case has echoed down the decades, to give us the Internet slang “MRDA”, an abbreviation for “Mandy Rice-Davies applies”, to indicate that the writer is sceptical of a claim due to the obvious bias of the person making the claim.

If someone has a lot to gain and little to lose from what they say, they should be treated more sceptically and examined more rigorously than someone who has nothing to gain and may even have something to lose.

But both should be viewed critically, as good journalists should.

TO SUMMARISE

The term "fake news" can have two meanings: (a) news that is untrue or (b) an accusation that true news is fake because the speaker does not like what is being said.

Objective journalism produces stories based on provable facts, supported by evidence, accurately relayed and representing all aspects of any controversy without bias.

Fake news can come from: Genuine errors, satire, half truths or maufactured falseness made to deceive people.

Journalists can use Trust Chains to fight fake news. You should:

  • Be honest with yourself.
  • Pass news forward honestly.
  • Question doubtful information.
  • Track suspect information back to its source.
  • Distinguish facts from opinion.
  • Find trusted, tested news sources.
  • Check against other media.
  • Do not blindly trust everything on the Internet.

Use the Lose/Gain Test on all sources of information that seem suspicious. Ask:

  • What have they got to gain by saying it?
  • What have they got to lose?

Check whether someone who claims expertise is actually an expert in the field you are reporting on.

USEFUL RESOURCES

An international collaboration of experts in journalism research and fact checking, the Verification Handbook provides guidance and practical solutions.

Using the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study from 2020, this blog by Sharon Hurley Hall looks at Identifying Fake News in the Time of Corona – Ultimate Guide to Avoid Panic and Indifference.

Alexios Mantzarlis, News and Information Credibility Lead, Google News Lab, blogs about a few tools from Google here.

 

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>>go to Volume 3 home

 

 
Index to Chapter 72
  1. Fakes news
  2. Different kinds of fake news
  3. Genuine errors
  4. Satire
  5. Half-truths
  6. Manufactured news
  7. Social media and fake news
  8. Trust Chains
  9. Be honest with yourself
  10. Pass news forward honestly
  11. Question doubtful information
  12. Track suspect information back to its source
  13. Distinguish facts from opinions
  14. Find trusted, tested news sources
  15. Check against other professional media
  16. Do not rely on the Internet
  17. The Lose/Gain Test
  18. Anyone can be tested
  19. Testing the experts
  20. Summary

 

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