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Making efforts to curb the spread of fake news

You may not have marked your calendar, but this is National Newspaper Week.

Beyond the navel-gazing long true of the industry – and even more so given the well-documented mergers, sellouts and financial woes of the dailies – the role of news in our lives is today more relevant than ever given the political climate.

Starting with the Tweeter in Chief and his Russian counterpart and moving through the ranks of populists to the tyrants and embezzlers, the politicians du jour have generated plenty of discussion about what’s news – in particular, what is fake news.

In this climate, research has shown some 63 per cent of Canadians were unable to distinguish between legitimate news websites and fake news stories, and 65 per cent of Canadians are worried that false information or fake news is being used as a weapon.

Clearly, access to the truth is at risk. For the legitimate press, that threat is primarily digital, which “appropriates” news generated by actual journalists, promulgates fake stories and debate, and draws away revenues despite studies that show such advertisements to be ineffective.

The loss of more real reporting will only lead to less information in an electronic media (including online sources) that has already descended into partisan bickering and screaming south of the border. Changes in this country, though less extreme, have not been for the better.

Ironically, even as we’re flooded with information – from online news sources to Facebook and Twitter and that ilk – there’s a greater need for a source to filter and interpret all of that raw data. That’s precisely what newspapers have been doing for centuries.

Besieged by new technologies, fragmentation in the market and what seems to be an increasingly detached citizenry, newspapers do have much to worry about. But the industry has been its own worst enemy in many cases, as concentration of ownership led to homogenization and a decline in quality, often fueled by new corporate masters more concerned with stock prices than with the good journalism, the very thing needed to attract readers.

And while more people go online to get their news, few people are aware that most of the material provided by news aggregators such as Google or endlessly rehashed by bloggers comes from newspapers, the organizations with trained journalists on the ground, attending meetings and poring through documents.

It’s that heavy lifting that separates traditional media from new forms, and why most Canadians still consider mainstream media as the most trustworthy source.

There is some hope Canadians at least are starting to sort things out, becoming more critical of social media postings. When asked which online source is the best for providing accurate and reliable news, two-thirds (68 per cent) of us choose one that has its roots as a traditional media outlet. This figure is higher among those under 35 (71 per cent), according to a 2017 survey.

Not surprisingly, those in the industry see the changes as a threat not only to their future but to the democratic function of the media. As we’ve seen in an increasing number of cases – the Trump/Russia investigation among them – the internet leads to a proliferation of lies, disinformation, propaganda and what would actually qualify as fake news.

The proliferation of information via technology is far more chaff than wheat, leading to information overload. Trouble is, most of it is useless, making for an ill-informed citizenry.

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