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SoE: 'Fake News' presents a threat to professional media

02 March 2017


The Society of Editors has warned that ‘fake news’ presents a worrying threat to the traditional and professional media.

In its response to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s Inquiry into the issue, the Society said that social media companies needed to do more to combat the problem and that already in the US, legitimate reporting was being incorrectly labelled as 'fake news' by politicians and elected representatives in an attempt to dismiss and stifle opposing views.    

The Society said: “‘Fake news’ presents a threat to the traditional mainstream media. Firstly, it is deeply worrying that inaccurate information passed off as fact prevents the public from making informed and evidence-based decisions. Alongside this, at a time of economic challenges for the UK press, advertising revenue is being diverted from the traditional media and enables sites that deliberately distribute false information to flourish. Information circulated unknowingly by journalists damages trust in the traditional media and attempts by elected representatives and the powerful to dismiss legitimate debate on the basis of ‘fake news’ prohibits journalists from conducting proper scrutiny in a democratic society.”

The Society warned that while UK journalists can continue to combat ‘fake news’ through the use of verification tools, social media companies also needed to do more to promote openness and transparency. The response also urged politicians not to use the issue as an excuse not to engage with the professional media.

It said: “The digital ecosystem, a platform that promotes both freedom of expression, greater reader engagement and wide distribution of news and comment, is also a means by which distorted and false news is energised in an unregulated environment. While professional news organisations and journalists can, and will, continue to use verification tools to spot fake news websites or inaccurate material and social media sites can continue to flag or remove fake news content where it is identified, it is essential that social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter do more to promote transparency and accountability on their platforms. Advertising networks should not enable the sharing of fake news to be a lucrative business nor should advertising revenue be the means by which a site that is primarily tasked with distributing fake news be allowed to flourish.

It added: “At its core, ‘fake news’ is an assault on truth. It is the job and role of professional journalists and news publications to speak truth to power and hold the powerful to account. Accurate, independent journalism is essential to our democracy and it has to be paid for.

“‘Fake news’ must not be confused with quality journalism nor should it be used as a means by which politicians and the powerful can dismiss accurate journalism, stifle debate or subdue scrutiny and legitimate discussion of issues they do not like. It is essential that in a democratic society, politicians and our elected representatives continue to engage with the news media. Increasingly, politicians and elected representatives are sidestepping the mainstream press in favour of distributing their own crafted message through social media channels – this is a worrying trend that removes the checks and balances that the traditional media would normally exercise.”

The Society went on to state that the issue was not largely recognised to be a product of the UK mainstream media and that it is generally accepted that journalists in the UK strive to operate to the highest standards of accuracy and responsibility.

It added: “Newspapers and professional media organisations are staffed by properly trained, demonstrably qualified individuals who can be disciplined or fired for failing in their duties. Typical contractual requirements demanded of journalists in the UK work to promote high standards on behalf of the individual and can result in dismissal for wrongdoing or actions that bring the employer into disrepute.

“In addition to the emphasis placed on high standards throughout training and upon employment through legally enforceable contracts, the promotion of excellence continues throughout a UK journalist’s career through the regulation and, in turn, the standards that regulatory systems in the UK uphold. As well as guidelines enforced by news organisations on an individual basis, those that work in broadcasting are bound to be regulated in accordance with Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code and the vast majority of newspapers in the UK are held to account by the Independent Press Standards Organisation which is charged with enforcing the Editors’ Code of Practice.  

“The Editors’ Code, which was not challenged nor heavily criticised by Lord Justice Leveson during the Leveson Inquiry, sets the benchmark for ethical standards and works to protect both the rights of the individual and the public's right to know. It has been used as the model for many other editorial codes around the world. In the UK, the Code is the cornerstone of the system of self-regulation to which the industry and our members have made a binding commitment. The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign in their newspapers and corresponding digital platforms, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code sets the benchmark expected of UK journalists in respect of accuracy in the first instant; ‘the Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text’. While this system of self-regulation is not foolproof against mistakes being made, newspapers and the media more generally are quick to make a correction if they are found to have published in error.”

The Society is due to attend a roundtable discussion organised by the Select Committee on Tuesday 14 March 2017.

The response can be read in full here.

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