'Selling news is a business'

News and the Media

By Karl Falconer

Can you trust the news? It seems as if, ever since Donald Trump became President, we’ve been hearing about “fake news!ˮ and being told we can’t trust the “dishonestˮ media.

To understand what’s really going on, we’ve got to go back in time. Newspapers have been around in Britain for over 400 years. Imagine: you’ve started your newspaper empire and business is booming. Your newspapers are flying off the shelves and you’re doing important work. Then, one day, across the street, you notice another news agent open. He’s a lot younger than you, his newspapers are smaller than yours, and easier to handle. Instead of important news about the King and latest tax reforms, he’s got celebrity gossip and naked women in his newspaper. And people are buying it! In fact, he seems to be doing so well that you decide to get in on the act.

Selling news is a business, and business only works if people like you and me buy papers. News is what happened, but selling the news is business. Which newspaper are you going to buy, the one with the factual, boring title, or the one that catches your eye? This has led newspapers to become more and more imaginative with the way they sell their product. In 1903, The Daily Mirror started a revolution in newspaper history with the first tabloid. In 1970, The Sun printed the first edition of its infamous Page 3 feature. Tabloid newspapers were sensational, focussing on celebrity and gossip – content they claimed readers really wanted to hear about; not politics and finance. The owners of tabloid newspapers became incredibly rich, and a few, most notably Rupert Murdoch, the Australian owner of newspapers including The Sun and The News of the World, went on to own vast news empires across the world. Because competition was encouraged, media moguls such as Murdoch ended up controlling a monopoly: where one company owns most of the market and competitors are unlikely to break through. At one point, Rupert Murdoch, who was also involved with Fox in America, and Sky here in the UK, was responsible for one quarter of the world’s entire news output.

With so much power, comes a problem.

Men like Murdoch became super rich and powerful, as the heads of some of the biggest companies on earth. With this came political leverage. Like many in big business, they favoured governments who kept taxes low, and didn’t interfere in their business. As their influence grew, the need to sell more papers increased, and their tactics got less and less honourable. The hounding pressures of the paparazzi are widely blamed for the death of Princess Diana. The impact of The Sun’s deliberately misleading headline about Liverpool fans at the Hillsborough disaster rumbles on to this day, with a blanket ban across the Merseyside region. More recently, phone-hacking scandals have emerged, and it has been claimed that the real political force in Britain lies with Rupert Murdoch. The New York Times claims that Murdoch, “remade the world.ˮ It is argued, with some justification that if Murdoch supports you, you’ll win.

The reality is that news has an agenda. Let’s say I throw a pen and it hits you. What’s the story? You’ll say I threw a pen at you. I’ll say it just slipped out of my hand. You’ll say I threw it at you because of your political views. I’ll say I was actually aiming for the guy behind you. Facts and opinions are slippery, and clever people know how to make their opinions sound like facts. By presenting the facts in a particular way, news items can frame a narrative. By creating an exciting story, news has us hooked.

News isn’t just in the papers, of course. At 10pm each evening, millions of us tune in to the news – but which channel do you flick to? Everything you see and hear is a decision, made by a big TV boss, to make the news as interesting, scary and addictive as possible. There’s a reason stories about war come first and stories about cats up trees come last. Why? Because they need you to keep watching. When you consider that the vast majority of those bosses are able bodied, straight, middle-class, white men, this becomes a problem.

Consider the BBC. It’s formal. The men wear ties, you’ll very rarely hear a regional accent. The message is: you can trust us. Whatever we tell you, you should listen. Over on ITV, things are a little different, but you might need to dig a bit to notice. Robert Peston might have his top button undone! Often, the presenter (or, anchor – an anchor gives stability, durr!) will look into the camera and sigh audibly: clearly, they’re as fed up of Brexit as the rest of us. The message? We’re all on the same side! We’re as irritated by this as you are!

The difference between ITV and the BBC is that ITV relies on advertising to make its money. Those adverts pay Piers Morgan’s wages. The BBC, on the other hand, is a public service broadcaster – it’s funded by the government and we pay for it through a licence fee. Because of this, it has to be impartial – it’s not supposed to be biased, or in favour, of any particular issue. They can’t be shown to be favourable to a political party, for example.

Being aware of this means we can be more active in ensuring that our news broadcasters are doing their job properly. Ofcom, the independent body who are supposed to enforce this, recently wrote that, “as national debates become more polarised, it becomes harder for broadcasters to be seen to be accurate and impartial.ˮ

To be fair, it’s actually harder than you might think to be impartial. Take a subject you think really strongly about and try and talk about it factually, without opinion. It isn’t easy, right? This article is biased – I’ve made my own opinions very clear and I’ve not given the other side of the argument a chance to have their say. The fact is: we’re human, and we’re programmed to have opinions – it’s a key part of how we fit in. The BBC’s mission to be impartial is very difficult in practice, when each of their presenters, directors and management have their own political views and opinions. In short: when they’re human too.

Social media has made it easier for fake news to spread. Clickbait titles – which will try to catch your attention by saying something like “OMG YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE WHAT KYLIE JENNER HAS DONE NOW!ˮ are really just a development from tabloid headlines. As fewer people buy traditional newspapers, more problematic tactics have been used – including Russian trolls generating deliberately misleading content about Hilary Clinton and targeting this at people who can still be persuaded to vote against her. On social media, we tell Facebook what we like, what we agree with, who we fancy, who we hate. We follow people whose opinions we agree with, meaning that it can be hard to see outside of the bubble we’ve made for ourselves, because everyone we follow likes what we like. “How could somebody vote for them? Everybody I know thinks this, so those people must be idiots.”

Fake News Spotter

We have all been part of the problem, and we must all be part of the solution. Here’s ten easy steps we can all take to be more aware of the news we share:

  • Think about who’s posting. Are they someone you trust?
  • Have you read the article you’re about to share or just the headline?
  • Is there another side of the argument?
  • Is it a fact or an opinion? A fact is something that cannot be proven false: Athens is the capital of Greece, for example.
  • Remember that all news has an agenda. The more you click and share, the more money they make. Why are they posting this?
  • Check the dates. Is this news current? Just because it was true yesterday doesn’t mean it will be today.
  • Look out for bias. Consider this sentence: “Apple is obviously the biggest company in the world because everyone has an iPhone.ˮ This might be true, but I could equally say that everybody I know owns a Samsung. Is Apple the biggest company in the world? How are we measuring size? The number of employees? The amount of profit? The amount of tax paid?
  • Common sense! “5G Spreads Coronavirus,ˮ is a typical example of internet hysteria. Not only is it not true, if you know anything about how virus’ spread, it makes no scientific sense. All it takes is a quick Google search to check.
  • OMG SHARE THIS CONSPIRACY THEORY ABOUT FACEBOOK YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE. This kind of post, usually found on Facebook, is always, absolutely, completely, without a shadow of a doubt, a scam. These posts are designed to confuse you and get you to share them. BUT OMG THIS IS SERIOUS, IF YOU DON’T REPOST THIS WITHIN FIVE MINS THE GOVERNMENT WILL SHUT DOWN YOUR ACCOUNT. There was a recent conspiracy that Boris Johnson’s letters were infected with Coronavirus so that we’d all catch it. Take a step back, put your common sense hat on, and think about how ridiculous these sound.
  • Check sources. News anchors will often be reporting on a story and use a line such as, “Labour’s policy on Brexit does have strengths, but many people here are saying that they’ve completely lost the plot and are fighting amongst themselves.ˮ Who is saying this? How do we know they didn’t just make it up? Could they be making it up so that it’ll help push their own agenda?

News and knowledge are tricky things – even the order in which things are presented can impact how we learn about them. It’s important to be cautious about all of the information you consume, and to think about whether you can trust it before you share it. When I was at school, we were taught that Pluto was a planet: now science has decided it is not. Knowledge can change as time goes by, which is why educating ourselves, throughout our life, is so important. You only have to go back a few decades to find textbooks, actually used in schools, which were filled with racial stereotypes and hatred: and these were used as part of the science curriculum. Questioning where our information comes from, asking who wrote it and, importantly, why, is essential.

It’s important to remember when our own knowledge is challenged, that the world doesn’t really work like a headline, where people are either good or evil. Most of the time, history and life is complicated. We must resist the temptation to refer to things in such simple ways, and accept that people who we admire, like Winston Churchill for instance, can have done really good things for our country, as well as some bad things. It’s the same with news. None of us are a headline, we’re much more complicated and interesting than that. Take that with you as you read on and enjoy getting to read beyond the clickbait.