In the last year, “fake news” became synonymous with the Trump campaign, election and administration. But the phrase is hardly new: According to Merriam-Webster, it’s been around for 125 years. (Just don’t look for it in a dictionary. Merriam-Webster explains “it is a self-explanatory compound noun.”)
Although much current attention on the phenomenon is directed at political reporting, there are potential problems in business journalism as well. As a recent American Society of Business Publication Editors blog post notes, material that is fake or even misleading is a problem in B2B coverage—and, frankly, in general business journalism.
Unintentional ways fake news creeps into stories
Here is the partial list of issues that the ASBPE noted:
• The tendency of publications to make sponsored advertising look like editorial material.
• A willingness to cover events or conferences with hidden corporate subsidization.
• The rise of company-sponsored research masquerading as “academic studies.”
• A temptation to rely on unnamed or poorly identified sources, who may in fact be publicists.
• Careless management of social media connections, which can lead to re-posting false information.
People have become distrustful of media in general. Business journalists are no exception, and part of the reason is the quality of the work itself. Reporters covering the markets or technology can become cheerleaders rather than impartial observers. Writers frequently include statements and data without questioning its veracity.
As a former PR representative told ASBPE, one tactic employed by public relations agencies is to work from the low to high ends of media. They build interest in their client through web search until the “buzz [is] too loud to risk missing” by major media outlets.
How journalists can combat fake news
We all need to be vigilant. Here are some ways you can do that:
• Create a checklist for your process that includes identifying and researching sources, reading through reports and revealing sponsorships.
• Question everything. You were taught not to automatically believe your mother if she said she loved you. Same goes for people with axes to grind.
• Triangulate what you hear with other information sources. See if statements seem reasonable.
• Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
• Write for your audience, not to gain access to corporate contacts.