Handbook for Journalism Education and Training: UNESCO Series on Journalism Education
Disinformation and misinformation are both different to (quality) journalism which complies with professional standards and ethics. At the same time they are also different to cases of weak journalism that falls short of its own promise. Problematic journalism includes, for example, ongoing (and uncorrected) errors that arise from poor research or sloppy verification. It includes sensationalising that exaggerates for effect, and hyper-partisan selection of facts at the expense of fairness.
But this not to assume an ideal of journalism that somehow transcends all embedded narratives and points of view, with sub-standard journalism being coloured by ideology. Rather it is to signal all journalism contains narratives, and that the problem with sub-standard journalism is not the existence of narratives, but poor professionalism. This is why weak journalism is still not the same as disinformation or misformation.
Journalists need to recognise that while the major arena of disinformation is social media, powerful actors today are instrumentalising ‘fake news’ concerns to clamp down on the genuine news media. New and stringent laws are scapegoating news institutions as if they were the originators, or lumping them into broad new regulations which restrict all communications platforms and activities indiscriminately
Nevertheless, poor quality journalism sometimes allows disinformation and misinformation to originate in or leak into the real news system. But the causes and remedies for weak journalism are different to the case of disinformation and misinformation. At the same time, it is evident that strong ethical journalism is needed as an alternative, and antidote, to the contamination of the information environment and the spill-over effect of tarnishing of news more broadly.
Today, journalists are not just bystanders watching an evolving avalanche of disinformation and misinformation. They find themselves in its pathway too.
This means that:
- Journalism faces the risk of being drowned out by the cacophony;
- Journalists risk being manipulated by actors who go beyond the ethics of public relations by attempting to mislead or corrupt journalists into spreading disinformation
- Journalists as communicators who work in the service of truth, including “inconvenient truths”, can find themselves becoming a target of lies, rumours and hoaxes designed to intimidate and discredit them and their journalism, especially when their work threatens to expose those who are commissioning or committing disinformation
In addition, journalists need to recognise that while the major arena of disinformation is social media, powerful actors today are instrumentalising ‘fake news’ concerns to clamp down on the genuine news media. New and stringent laws are scapegoating news institutions as if they were the originators, or lumping them into broad new regulations which restrict all communications platforms and activities indiscriminately.
Such regulations also often have insufficient alignment to the international principles requiring that limitations on expression should be demonstrably necessary, proportional and for legitimate purpose. Their effect, even if not always the intention, is to make genuine news media subject to a “ministry of truth” with the power to suppress information for purely political reasons.
In today’s context of disinformation and misinformation, the ultimate jeopardy is not unjustifiable regulation of journalism, but that publics may come to disbelieve all content – including journalism. In this scenario, people are then likely to take as credible whatever content is endorsed by their social networks, and which corresponds with their hearts – but leaves out engagement with their heads. We can already see the negative impacts of this on public beliefs about health, science, intercultural understanding and the status of authentic expertise.
This impact on the public is also especially concerning for elections, and to the very idea of democracy as a human right. What disinformation seeks, particularly during a poll, is not necessarily to convince the public to believe that its content is true, but to impact on agenda setting (on what people think is important) and to muddy the informational waters in order to weaken rationality factors in people’s voting choices7. Likewise, the issues of migration, climate change and others can be highly impacted by uncertainty resulting from disinformation and misinformation.
These dangers are why confronting the rise of ‘fake news’ head-on is an imperative for journalism and journalism education. At the same time, the threats also constitute an opportunity to double down on demonstrating the value of news media. They provide a chance to underline in professional practice the distinctiveness of delivering verifiable information and informed comment in the public interest.