Could fake news revive traditional media?

Lush Digital Media director of content strategy, Sarah Mitchell
By Lush Digital Media director of content strategy, Sarah Mitchell | 10 January 2017
Sarah Mitchell

The Oxford Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ the 2016 Word of the Year. If that’s not the proverbial last nail for the media, I don’t know what is. Point fingers all you want but, in my opinion, the media only have themselves to blame.

News agencies have cannibalised their own profession by getting rid of legions of editors, subeditors, photographers, photo editors, reporters and feature writers. I can’t remember the last time I read a newspaper article that didn’t have at least one mistake in the copy. It’s no longer unusual to have factual errors in a story. Having an exclusive photo or video is so rare, the major networks in Australia plaster watermarks all over them so you can’t see what they’re working so hard to promote as their own. It’s no wonder fake news has taken hold.

The press is in a battle for popularity from an increasingly demanding audience, and that’s the problem. Traditional media is focused on giving us what we want, not what we need.They’re doing their level best to draw an audience and forgetting the obligation of a free press is to inform and educate. It’s a race to the bottom fuelled by gossip, celebrity features and entertainment. We’re all losers in this proposition.

We’re living in an era where, with a few notable exceptions, we don’t know who to trust. Using Brexit and the recent US election as examples, strong evidence suggests forces at work to deceive the general public were far more successful than reporting from traditional media properties. Some of the most popular news stories in 2016 turned out to be fake. They were done so well and with so much authority, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t.

As audiences fragment, citizen journalism explodes and traditional media battles to find a new funding model, we’re left in a post-truth limbo. Fact-checking and objective reporting have gone out the window. Small factions from places like Macedonia are now influencing public opinion and swaying global politics. It’s frightening.

My take is the traditional media is well and truly cooked. They didn’t do their job in the US elections. They didn’t take Trump seriously until it was too late. They soft-balled questions, treated him like a human headline and pandered to his every press-conference-cum-publicity-stunt. Fake news certainly played its part but the media subjugated their own authority. In some cases, they even reported on fake news, thereby legitimising a story they hadn’t confirmed was truthful.

So where does that leave us? Who can we trust? In my opinion, brands have an incredible opportunity to own a slice of the fourth estate. They can do what media has always done using the skills and talent the press has made redundant. (In a major win for unemployed journalists, they usually get a huge boost in income when their pay packet comes from a business.) As long as brands focus on reporting industry news and not broadcasting about their own business, they’ll gain the trust of their audience over time. If they can resist the urge to turn every story into one long call to action, they’ll build influence.

But I could be wrong. I’ve subscribed to the New York Times because I think they’re doing a valiant job of maintaining an excellent standard of journalism. I’m debating about a subscription to the Washington Post and the Atlantic in a show of solidarity. After years of reading those publications for free, the fake news epidemic made me get out my credit card. Maybe there’s hope for traditional media after all.

Sarah Mitchell is the director of content strategy at Lush Digital Media, co-host of the Brand Newsroom podcast and chief editor of Traction News.

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