The concern over “fake news” isn’t just a problem for the journalism industry — it’s an issue for all professional communicators.
In a March Weber Shandwick study on the relationship between American consumers and news producers, 74 percent of respondents said they struggle with discerning what’s actual fact-based reporting and what isn’t. Though this seems to pinpoint an overall media literacy crisis for our country, there’s an even scarier implication in this statistic: average people appear to be highly skeptical, in general, of communications sources. If you can’t distinguish between a clearly factual article and a clearly opinion-based or fabricated article, then it means you probably assume all of it is fake or at least driven by political motives.
Figuring out how to restore public trust in the media was a recurring theme at a recent New York panel titled “Defining Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” featuring TIME reporter Charlotte Alter, Forbes editor Helen A.S. Popkin, Newsday reporter Mark Chiusano and MediaPost writer Philip Rosenstein.
These are three, key ways that PR agencies and communications professionals can help with the cause:
1. Be specific with sourcing and survey data.
A major reason people distrust journalism outlets is their tendency to use anonymous sources in hard news pieces, an unfortunate but necessary part of dealing with powerful individuals who may be able to share sensitive or private information on the record but can’t give their name, the panelists said. Still, Chiusano believes reporters should seek out new ways to deliver newsworthy scoops without having to rely on anonymous sourcing, which may help foster trust between the public and the press.
It’s important for professional communicators to be as transparent as possible too. For instance, Alter mentioned that she often distrusts polls from sources who, unlike well-known researchers such as Pew Research Center, aren’t always clear about who conducts their surveys and what the sample size and demographics are.
To combat this skepticism, communicators should make sure they’re upfront in discussing every aspect of how they gathered their data. Who knows — it may help a journalist write a more trustworthy article if he or she is citing a transparent and detail-oriented survey.
2. Work with conservative-leaning publications.
While The New York Times and The Washington Post are reliable members of the mainstream media, their editorial pages tend to have a liberal slant. If you’re a reader who struggles with the difference between editorials and hard news stories, then it can be easy to conflate the lefty bias in opinion pieces on social justice with the objectivity of articles on the economy that may run on the front page of the paper.
Alter feels this confusion can alienate people with right-leaning politics (only 14 percent of Republicans trust mass media, according to a 2016 Gallup survey) who may pick up The New York Times to get their daily dose of current events only to stumble onto a Paul Krugman essay that may condemn their beliefs. This forces people into reading news outlets with far-right agendas like Breitbart, where dogmatic conservatism penetrates both their editorial pieces and regular news coverage.
Communications professionals can help steer people away from those publications by pitching to and valuing outlets that are both conservative and reputable such as The Wall Street Journal, said Alter.
3. Use caution when posting news on Facebook.
Though Facebook has recently stepped-up its efforts to promote news literacy, it’s difficult to regulate the flow of misinformation with only a few algorithmic alterations, insists Alter.
“Facebook has to decide whether it’s a tech company or a media company,” she said.
So, if you manage social media for a PR agency, make sure the articles you’re sharing are from reliable sources. Facebook may not be able to stop the spread of fake news just yet, but you certainly are.