Journalism in the era of 'fake news'

Among the trends that shaped the globe during the just-concluded 2016 globally was the advent of ‘fake news.’

Among the trends that shaped the globe during the just-concluded 2016 globally was the advent of ‘fake news.’

Several social and mainstream media platforms were awash with fictitious information, some perpetrators making an extra effort to link them to some of the most reputable media organisations.

The widespread fake news are being circulated with an aim of increasing traffic on the platforms that disseminate them, with an aim of eventually becoming better online sales platforms.

While some of the fiction is ridiculously unbelievable and readers can easily point out falsehoods therein, others can easily pass off as factual news especially in the fast changing world where most developments no longer shock us.

It is this ‘fake news’ that can easily be taken for truth that has probably has the most impact in consumption of media and the industry at large.

Ideally, with the abundant information resources availed by the internet, there should not be reason to fear such trends as consumers can easily verify the content.

However, reality is quite the opposite. Few information consumers take time to verify information they receive whether as news, updates on their social media timelines or Whatsapp messages.

This has made audiences more susceptible to fake news.

The trend which is now serving more purpose than just generating traffic to the platforms has influenced decision making with some suggesting that it could have had a role in the outcome of elections in a first world country.

The content of some of the fake news have also been said to have influenced perceptions and views leading divisiveness and conflict when it has been used by persons with ulterior motives beyond generating traffic.

One never knows the instant some fake news about them could be developed and how it could shape the public’s opinion about them and their engagement thereafter.

The national carrier, RwandAir was last year a victim of fake news when a West African based platform published fake news that it had been banned from some of its destinations.

The airline had to fast damage control measures before the fiction could influence clients’ perception of the airline.

That incident shows to what extent fake news could be used as a tool for corporate war with propaganda as ammunition and profits and revenues as the causalities.

From states, public figures, corporations you name it, no one is safe.

But what is the role of true journalism in the face of the trend?

To put this into context, the development comes at a time when future of journalism as a profession and traditional media as an industry has been questionable.

Across the globe, ratings are dropping for mainstream media and profits are dipping fast. Some outlets have cut their losses early and closed shop while others have downsized on their human resources.

There is a mass exodus with journalists leaving the profession for more stable and attractive professions with most ending up in public relations.

Social media’s rise in popularity has also caused some to use traditional media platforms less as anyone with a social media account and an internet connection can be a citizen journalist.

With the trends, I am probably not the only reporter who his questioned if I will still be relevant in 5 years’ time.

But with trends such as fake news and half-truths spread on social media, there has probably never been a time when journalists have been more relevant.

At a time when very few social media content producers and consumers users take time to verify the facts in their tweets and posts, there has probably never been a time when journalistic skills come in handy than now.

This is the best time and avenue for the growth of media outlets to set facts right and dispel half-truths.

The media is the best defense for corporations, nations and individuals against fake news when used as a tool of war.

Though social media had often been said to be the biggest threat to traditional journalism, it has probably created a new opportunity for media practitioners to expand their reach to a larger audience and set facts right.

What keeps some of us at night though is what will keep us relevant. The skills set that will enable us keep the attention of our audiences as we compete with social media platforms.

Do we still give audiences value for their time and money? Do they learn anything new from press outlets?

While basic journalistic skills such as speed, insight, factuality will come in handy to survive in present day media industry, there is more to it.

Responsibility too should be shared by high learning institutions who churn out reporters and journalists.

It’s probably time to review and rethink skills set produced by universities.

Universities should now go beyond curriculums that focused on video editing, conducting interviews and recorder handling to offer more than he-said-she-said pieces.

As disruptive technologies move to change the field alongside other sectors, it would be a good time to review media related curriculums, retrain tutors to see to it that learners are not discouraged by mass exodus but rather are much more optimistic about coming days in the field. 

Universities and colleges that churn out graduates who hope to one day become reporters and editors should work closely with the industry stakeholders for critical skills assessment to identify areas to leap frog and maintain relevance.

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