Media has been struggling with credibility over the last four years, despite the fact that professional journalists have not ceded their commitment to honest, truthful reporting, as is their Fourth Estate tradition. But a polarized media environment and cries of “fake news”—often from the highest levels of government—that greet publication of even the most rigorous reporting have eroded journalists’ hope for their profession’s future, new research from strategic communications firm Greentarget reveals.
And despite President Trump’s relentless attacks on the press, the research reveals that journalists don’t expect broader improvement to the fake news stigma impacting the journalism industry if Joe Biden wins the presidential election.
But according to the firm’s new report, Fake News 2020: Combatting Misinformation & Disinformation, released just days before the 2020 election, the same journalists were equally strident that they and their colleagues would be best positioned to fight fake news in the months and years ahead—and outlined steps that PR professionals can take to help them in their fight.
The researchers queried more than 100 working journalists to gauge sentiment around fake news’ effects and origins, how to fight it and importantly the ambiguity around the term itself. The firm was inspired in part by the highly charged political environment of 2020, which is why they set out to survey journalists in the months leading up the presidential election.
“These survey results are significant because they gauge the sentiment of a broad swath of professional journalists at a crucial moment in history,” said John E. Corey, founding partner of Greentarget, in a news release. “We work with some of the most talented and experienced journalists in the world on a daily basis—and even we were taken aback by the level of pessimism and the lack of clarity around how to address and ultimately correct the growing prevalence of mis- and disinformation.”
“That was part of the reason why we went beyond simply reporting these results and conclude our report with actionable guidance that everyone in the news ecosystem—journalism schools and think tanks, public relations practitioners and newsrooms—can and should embrace,” Corey added. “We did this because we understand the critical role journalism plays in the healthy functioning of democracy and the free market.”
Key findings of the report include:
Fake news has hurt journalism
Eighty percent of respondents strongly believe fake news has negatively impacted their profession, and 14 percent say they somewhat believe that it has. Further, the journalists surveyed say fake news fosters multiple prejudices and distorts the public’s understanding of current events.
Don’t expect it to get better under Biden
One in four respondents say Trump has had a significantly negative impact on journalism. But just 46 percent feel optimistic about journalism’s future under a new president and 43 percent say they are indifferent on the question. The survey, conducted when it was clear that Biden would oppose Trump in November, clearly indicates that after years of attacks on journalists’ credibility and a steady erosion in trust, a sense of fatalism has settled in.
Journalists still want to fight the good fight
Despite their pessimism, journalists surveyed believe they (reporters, editors and news councils or journalism organizations) are best positioned to vet fake news and identify misleading information. Only 12 percent think the government should call out fake news. Relatedly, only about four in 10 support or strongly support using the law to curb fake news.
Fake news remains difficult to define
Part of the problem is that fake news can mean different things to different people—even journalists. About a third of our respondents say fake news is disinformation (false information knowingly spread with the intent to deceive), while another third say it is misinformation (false or misleading information spread by those who believe it to be true). Twenty-two percent equate fake news with propaganda.
How to combat the fake news epidemic
The report concludes by laying out a series of actions PR professionals can take to fight fake news. The measures include supporting reporters and editors, stressing ethics and transparency, putting the audience first and broadly advocating against fake news.
Greentarget pledges to follow these steps and encourages other PR practitioners to do the same.
“Long before fake news was part of the common vernacular, the principles of journalism—and the role they play in contributing to smarter, richer and more balanced conversations—have been fundamental to our business,” said Lisa Seidenberg, Greentarget’s vice president for media relations, in the release. “We know how important journalism is in our work to help organizations establish unique positions of authority, and we encourage all PR professionals and influential voices in the news ecosystem to support rigorous, responsible journalism. The success of our work depends on the steady flow of reliable information and stemming the tide of fake news is good for our industry and, more broadly, our society.”