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Journalists say the fake news epidemic isn’t improving—and they don’t know how to fix it

by | Nov 9, 2021 | Public Relations

The fake news epidemic continues to be a major threat to media and communications, and journalists are not only frustrated by the movement, but also at a loss on a strategy to corral it, according to a new study from strategic comms firm Greentarget. As fake news continues to plague journalism—and arguably, democracy itself—journalists are pessimistic that their own efforts, self-policing by Big Tech and government efforts are enough to turn the tide.

In Fake News 2021, the firm surveyed more than 100 journalists, 35 percent of whom have worked in the profession for more than 20 years. It’s the second edition of the report, the first of which was released just days before the 2020 presidential election. But journalists’ optimism when it comes to fake news hasn’t changed much despite last year’s contentious political system fading into history.

Journalists say the fake news epidemic isn’t improving—and they don’t know how to fix it

Instead, 2021 has been a year in which facts around COVID-19 vaccines have been fodder for intense political debate. That’s likely part of the reason why journalists were about as pessimistic about fake news—broadly defined as misinformation and disinformation—as they were a year ago and why they think the term itself is overly political and doing harm to their profession.

Here’s a quick sampling of journalists’ sentiments when it comes to fake news:

Journalists say the fake news epidemic isn’t improving—and they don’t know how to fix it

“With the term ‘fake news’ so widely weaponized and disinformation and misinformation so common in everyday life, it’s hard to say how much of this year’s results reflect standard journalist cynicism or correctly gauge a very urgent threat,” said Betsy Hoag, Greentarget’s director of Research & Planning and Paul Wilson, vice president of Content & Editorial, in a news release. “Journalists also certainly aren’t bullish about any of the methods available to combat fake news—but we think it’s critical that something, or perhaps many ‘somethings,’ be done for the sake of our democracy.”

Journalists say the fake news epidemic isn’t improving—and they don’t know how to fix it

Top issues addressed in the study include:

How fake news hurts journalism

Eighty-four percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the term “fake news” is contributing to the delegitimization of traditional journalism and news sources.

Journalists say the fake news epidemic isn’t improving—and they don’t know how to fix it

Muddying of the term itself

Four in 10 (41 percent) journalists noted that when they hear the phrase “fake news,” it’s referring to traditional/qualified news sources, compared to 38 percent who said it relates to actual fake news.

Journalists say the fake news epidemic isn’t improving—and they don’t know how to fix it

Last defense against fake news

A whopping 93 percent, up from 85 percent last year, of journalists said they have an ethical responsibility to vet fake news and identify misleading information.

Top-tier media gains trust in the eyes of journalists

Eighty-four percent of respondents in 2021 said they use publications like The Wall Street Journal to vet information, a sizable jump from the 56 percent in 2021.

Journalists say the fake news epidemic isn’t improving—and they don’t know how to fix it

Journalists’ relationship with social media

Despite the low opinion of social media and Big Tech the journalists surveyed expressed, two-thirds of them said they use social media in their jobs at least a quarter of the time.

The future of Section 230

While 55 percent of respondents said social media poses the single greatest threat to the spread of misinformation, they didn’t have strong feelings about reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a possible way to regulate Big Tech. Fewer than half believe reforms are necessary.

The effectiveness of media literacy

Just over one-third of the journalists surveyed (35 percent) said media literacy efforts had a high or moderate impact when it comes to lessening the spread of fake news—and nearly 1 in 5 said they had no impact.

Journalists say the fake news epidemic isn’t improving—and they don’t know how to fix it

“We support journalists in their efforts and know the value of what they do for a free society,” said Lisa Seidenberg, Greentarget’s vice president of Media Relations, in the release. “That said, we think—and we certainly hope—they’re being overly cynical about fighting fake news. Media literacy efforts, which have proven effective, are increasing across the country. We find these efforts encouraging—and we hope journalists and the broader public get behind them more fully.

Download the full report here.

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Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 12 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richardc@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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