“Can you believe we are back to avoiding malls and other public places?” My friend said over the phone. “It seems the season of those bad people is here again.”
That statement delivered in a panicked voice punctuated by “Jesus help us” incantation is how my friend was trying to deal with an avalanche of alarming WhatsApp forwards and Facebook shares warning of possible terror attacks in different malls.
She forwarded some of the messages my way. A keen look at these messages and a few phone calls to the authorities, returned the verdict that these messages were fake. However, even after I assured her that the messages were fake, she ended the conversation with a resigned vow: “Only God will save us. Meanwhile, I will try to avoid public places.”
That episode exposed me to the extent of fear, anxiety and emotional torture that fake information leaves on people who consume the information, but who are ill-equipped to verify the accuracy of that information.
It is easy for the few who are media literate and digitally savvy to easily dismiss such information as false based on the inherent glaring mistakes or after verifying the authenticity of the messages with the authorities, but we should not assume that every person has the same capabilities and wisdom to vet the information.
Unfortunately, we are living in an era where news — whether accurate or inaccurate— spreads like wildfire on dry grass. We increasingly see the main interest of news sources shift from giving accurate information to greedily focus on competition for numbers and the urge of being the first to break news. Credibility of information has become an anathema especially for the majority of social media users who care less about the implications of misinformation and disinformation. The trend also shows a population that has interesting characters whose main aim is to dupe the public with false information to not only pursue selfish interests and earn the clicks but to do it just for fun.
This competition is not just limited to netizens. Mainstream media which is grappling with shrinking audiences and fast declining revenue bases has several times fallen into this class of sources of misinformation. Whereas responsible journalists are restrained by the code of ethics that makes it mandatory to report the truth, unprofessional news sources are more concerned with eliciting reactions and maximizing on their audiences with least of their concern being accuracy. Furthermore, they don’t feel obliged to honour the most basic rules of communication of telling the truth.
We cannot ignore the dilemma that the traditional media face and their vulnerability to becoming purveyors of misinformation and disinformation. Competition emanating from social media has denied them a fundamental opportunity and role of being the first to break news, grabbed a considerable size of audience not to mention advertisements. Before breaking news, mainstream media has to follow a process of verification at various editorial quality control desks within the newsroom setup. And due to this competition -- because the traditional media is equally interested in increasing their audiences -- there are instances that they ignore the due journalistic process and rush to broadcast or publish news without verification.
This is a dangerous trend.
Even as mainstream media focus on speed of breaking the news, they also have to give adequate primacy to the accuracy of the news, so that, unlike the unregulated and journalistically untrained social media users, they don’t end up spreading false information. The traditional media will always be judged because they are a body of professionals expected to adhere to tenets of good journalism. They have a duty to the public- to tell the truth. Good journalism is what will distinguish mainstream media from the rest of news sites on the internet. Fact-checking is also an important tool that will make the media stand out as a trusted source of news in the society.
Mainstream media should set the bar higher by seeking to investigate issues and report facts. Furthermore, fact-checking is a central role in journalism and in the first place, should not be negotiable. Fact-checking is a tool that the media can use to shield themselves from critics as well as defend their profession knowing that audiences appreciate good journalism pegged on facts and accuracy.
This requires media houses to inject more resources and allocate more time to fact-checking in cognizance of the lengthy, costly and demanding efforts required to dig out facts in a world with a sweet tooth for deliberate disinformation and misinformation. But it also requires personal effort of the journalist.
Verifying every piece of detail before releasing it to the public should be the anchor point of every credible media. Journalists have an important duty to hold leaders to account using facts and going the extra mile of protecting the public from fake information that could have serious implications.
By embracing fact-checking and by publicizing their findings on what the facts are, the media will be integral in expanding the democratic space, promoting development, transparency and accountability, improving personal healthcare and boosting the general wellbeing of the society. This is because we will have a society that is empowered with accurate information to guide policymaking processes and personal decisions. The media will also improve their credibility, articulate their professional importance and shun critics who dwell on misreporting errors to discredit them or limit their freedom.
In the case of my friend and so many others who live in fear of alarming false information, the media must set the record straight by sieving facts from fake information and informing the public to help them lead normal lives.
Judie Kaberia is a co-founder of The Woman Newsroom Fact-checker and the chairperson of Africa Check Foundation board in Kenya.