Misinformation may be popular but credibility commands trust

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd recently wrote a reflective piece titled “Requiem for the Newsroom.” The article is largely nostalgic but also touches on the unique and sometimes peculiar aspects of newsrooms. Reading it made me think about the intriguing stories, news tips, and correspondences that take place in newsrooms, and what might happen if they were made public.

The recent settlement of a lawsuit between Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems provided insight into such newsroom correspondences, which were laid bare when the election company filed a lawsuit over unfounded allegations of election fraud in the 2020 US presidential election.

At the centre of the lawsuit is Dominion’s complaint that Fox News made “wild and spurious conspiracies”, with a claim that Dominion had swapped votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. The case was ultimately settled in a $787.5 million deal.

This litigation uncovered stunning revelations about Fox News and its presenters through depositions and other evidence presented. Additionally, perhaps more remarkably, the case resulted in the departure of Tucker Carlson, the host of the highly-rated programme, Tucker Carlson Tonight, from the network. This was damaging for Fox News, causing both embarrassment and loss of credibility.

Fox News has long been largely propelled by airing content based on their audience’s preferences, regardless of whether it is the truth, propaganda, a conspiracy theory, or manipulated information to support a specific narrative. The network has a history of not reining in their biased hosts, which is why the dismissal of Carlson came as a surprise to many.

As a report by NPR stated, “What Dominion uncovered in the investigative part of the suit… revealed a world grounded in cynicism, hostility. From the top down, [Fox News] created a network defined by a relentless pursuit of ratings that placed profit above politics and partisan advantage above any sense of journalistic obligation. The public’s right to know the truth rarely earned a hearing.”

Indeed, one of Carlson’s messages that have been made public revealed that he didn’t believe the election fraud claims but notably remarked that “our viewers are good people and they believe it.” This supports NPR’s observation about the network’s unwavering pursuit of ratings. Fox News presented storylines that resonated with its audience’s beliefs, even if they were not necessarily factual. Their devoted audience had their preconceived viewpoints, the job of Fox News was to contrive a narrative that fitted.

This approach proved to be successful for them.

According to a report by Forbes, Carlson achieved a record 3.473 million viewers for the week ending February 12th, making his show the highest-rated programme in cable news for that week. It is, therefore, not surprising that despite spreading misinformation for a considerable period, Carlson had not been restrained. Given its long history of tolerating and even promoting biased commentaries, it is evident that the network was compelled to act because the Dominion case payment affected their financial interests.

The lawsuit thus served as a wake-up call for media organizations to realize the dangers of calculatedly spreading misinformation.  Unfortunately, this is a growing concern in many media outlets eager to attract more audiences in a highly competitive environment. Many online platforms are driven by the perception that content that trend will promote their brand. Verification hardly takes precedence.

Even mainstream media organizations sometimes find it difficult to admit errors and issue corrections or retract stories that are found to be false, especially if they are trending online. Social media has significantly contributed to the rapid spread of false information due to its minimal regulatory standards. Even though news consumers are able to call out misinformation, studies have shown that very few people are concerned about the credibility of information sources. If the news appeals to them, they are likely to believe it and share it, even if there are red flags indicating that it may be false.

According to a 2018 study published in Science, “false news online travels ‘farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.” The study notes that the effect is particularly distinct for false political news. The researchers also found that falsehoods are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than the truth.

This possibly explains why media platforms such as Fox News, which are desperate for ratings, manipulate their audience. The deceit and bias that are passed off as political commentary are dutifully consumed by ardent viewers because the network has curated an image that resonates with their audience, providing them with content that aligns with their political beliefs and values systems.

The Fox News case offers important lessons for media organizations. In today’s democratized media landscape, audiences are active participants in the news business, providing unfiltered feedback in real time. As a result, media platforms that ignore journalistic standards risk losing the trust of credible news consumers.

However, it is important to differentiate a situation where misinformation is a deliberate strategy, from cases where courts have awarded payments to individuals over inaccurate stories. While some of these cases may result from poor gatekeeping and oversight, they are not the same as the sustained manipulation of an audience for ratings and profit.

This does not, however, change the primary concern of reputational damage and financial loss incurred, whether as a result of editorial lapses or deliberate scheming to fulfil a strategy. That is why Fox News can only keep its devoted conservative viewership for as long as they sustain the narrative they have already built.

The lawsuit by Dominion has underlined the importance of holding the media accountable to check the unbridled spread of misinformation that discredit brands and individuals.

Media organizations should – as credible journalism requires – stick to the truth. In the quest for rapid growth, media platforms may be tempted to focus on sensational stories but this approach is not sustainable. Instead, a commitment to principled journalism can establish credible brands and command respect because they are built on truth and trust.

Ms Vuchiri is a journalist with keen interest in media development.

vuchiri@gmail.com

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