Report looks at ethics behind news coverage of Brexit plus tips for spotting fake news

A report on ethical news coverage has offered tips to journalists on how to spot fake news and the ethics of Brexit coverage in the UK press.

The Ethics in the News report, published yesterday by charity the Ethical Journalism Network, said journalists should follow “simple ground rules” to avoid repeating stories that aren’t true.

They include:

  • “Use fact-checking web sites
  • “Watch out for websites with odd names. Strange domain names or sites that end in “.com.co” for instance are often fake versions of real news sources
  • “Check the “About Us” section on the website. Worry if there isn’t one and check the provider with Wikipedia
  • “Beware of stories not being reported elsewhere. A shocking, outrageous or surprising event will have another source. If it doesn’t, be suspicious
  • “Be wary if there is no attribution for an author or source. That’s sometimes justified, but should be explained and, if not, don’t trust it
  • “Check the date. One favourite trick of news fakers is to repackage old stories. They may have been accurate but used out of time and out of context they may become malicious falsehoods
  • “Finally, remember that there’s such a thing as satire. Not all fakery is malicious.”

The report also offered the charity’s view on the news ethics behind coverage of Brexit and outlined its position on issues ranging from Facebook and fake news.

On coverage of the European Union and Brexit: 

“The duty of journalists in this post- truth environment is the same as it has always been – to separate lies from facts, to inform readers as honestly as possible and to aim at the closest approximation of the truth. Inventing or doctoring stories to the political lines of media outlets, as often happens with EU coverage, is an abdication of basic journalist ethics. It also blurs the line between public relations and journalism to the extent that the two become indistinguishable.

“If your primary role as a reporter is persuading readers or viewers to back a certain position, whether keeping migrants out of the UK or the UK out of the EU or both, you are no longer doing journalism; you are doing communication.

“Journalists in this position should ask themselves “am I enlightening my audience or obfuscating the truth, allowing them to make a free choice or pumping propaganda down their throats, and working in the interests of the readers and viewers who ultimately pay my wages or for owners whose primary loyalty is to shareholders?”

So how can journalists improve reporting of the EU to make it fairer, more honest and more accurate?

“First, understand how it works. If you don’t know the difference between the European Council, Council of Europe and Council of the EU, it’s time to start studying.

“Second, don’t be lazy. If one MEP opines about an issue, that does not mean it is the position of the European Parliament. And if the Commission drafts a proposal, that doesn’t mean the EU has decided anything.

“Third, blurring opinion and commentary rarely enlightens readers and viewers. So avoid pejorative descriptions of EU officials as “barmy Brussels bureaucrats” and shrill headlines that are better suited to political pamphlets than newspaper articles.”

On Fake News: 

“The problem for journalists is not just the rise of the internet behemoths and the impact of technology. The crisis they face is that news in its traditional formats has become unfashionable, and that the media business no longer makes money out of news.

“The communications revolution provides people with different ways to access information and they create their own filters for information they like or don’t like. For around 150 years newspapers controlled news and advertising markets, but digital technology has changed everything. Display and classified advertising have moved online and so far no convincing solution has been found to the problem of filling the ever-widening gaps in editorial budgets.

“In the face of this crisis media have made lacerating cuts in their editorial coverage. News gathering has become a desk-bound process. There is less money spent on investigative journalism and investment in human resources – decent jobs and training – is falling.

“As a result, media increasingly follow the agenda of political and corporate elites and there is a dearth of journalism that holds power to account. This may explain in part why some mainstream media have become disconnected from their audience.

“How media rebuilds public trust in quality journalism will be a major question in the coming years, and not just for academics and students of mass communication. The information crisis is one that touches on the prospects for democracy. The rise of propaganda, hate-speech and self-regarding politics with an extremist edge threatens stability and peace both within countries and abroad.

“People have not given up on fact-based communications but they are sceptical about how media – online and offline – are delivering their messages. In times of crisis and uncertainty they turn to voices that echo their concerns and fears, even if they are strident and divisive. Media have lessons to learn from the bruising experience of 2016, not least that they must be honest, fair and aggressive in their coverage of politics, but never lose sight of their audience.

“The challenge of the coming years will be to reinvigorate the public purpose of journalism and to assist media to reconnect with citizens more effectively. This existential crisis requires, above all, for journalists to recommit to their craft with reporting that reaches out to their audience and listens to what is being said and reports it in context.”

On Facebook: 

“Facebook would do well to stop denying it is a publisher and face up to its responsibility as a news provider. It needs to recognise and apply the principles and core standards of journalism and free expression that have guided the work of journalists, editors and publishers for generations.

“It can best do that, say media experts, by giving editors of news media a voice in making the decisions about how they use the platform and by employing its own team of editors to work with professional media to resolve disputes when they arise.”

On sources: 

“Journalists need to be as transparent as possible in their relations with sources. The news media have great power and people can be flattered when they are approached by reporters without understanding fully the risks to themselves and to others when they come into the public eye. This is particularly true of people caught up in humanitarian disasters, war or other traumatic events.

“Journalists have to assess the vulnerability of sources as well as their value as providers of information. They have to explain the process of their journalism and why they are covering the story.

They should not, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, use subterfuge or deception in their dealings with sources.”

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