Historically, dubious journalism is not new. Yellow journalism – sensational and lurid news – dates back to the 1890s. But the emergence of “fake news,” or fabricated news, is of more recent vintage. Fake news has grown to alarming proportions, thanks to some Internet sites and social media, like Facebook. Facebook itself has said it is taking steps to sniff out fake news. More worrying, however, is the appearance of fake news in traditional media. Fake news in such media is based on untruths or half-truths coming from supposedly reliable sources and narrators, say, officials or state actors.
Two recent examples of such news are last week’s story on the “death” of the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko and the distortion of truth, in April, by British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson in the case of a murderous attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain earlier. Both cases raise questions regarding traditional media’s commitment to journalistic standards and ethics. They should check the authenticity of the news before publishing so as to prevent embarrassing retraction and damage to credibility. Cross-checking for reliability of the news is critical in the age of fake news.
The news about Babchenko, issued by Ukrainian state authorities and reproduced by mainstream media, turned out to be fake. After having been reported killed, Babchenko reappeared, as though in a Hollywood movie scene, live at a news conference with Ukrainian authorities, saying they had to fake his death to thwart a real threat to his life from hit men hired by Russia. Mainstream news organizations, including BBC and CNN, had to retract the story.
Such gullible news reporting, which just regurgitates state propaganda, ruins media’s credibility. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international media watchdog, has raised several questions in the wake of the fake news and subsequent retraction.
· How imminent and credible was the alleged threat to Babchenko's life?
· What evidence does the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) have that the Russian security service orchestrated the alleged assassination plot?
· What evidence does Ukraine have against the alleged organizer and alleged contract killer?
· Why did the SBU need to go to the extreme measure of announcing Babchenko's murder to stop the alleged plot and arrest the alleged organizer?
· How much did Babchenko's wife know of the plan to stage his killing, and when?
These questions raise doubts about Ukrain’s need to fake a journalist’s killing and highlights the media’s tendency to publish the “news” without questioning the authenticity of it. CNN, which carried the news of Babchenko’s “death,” is already falling behind in the cable news ratings.
The mainstream media’s propensity to publish state and politicians’ agenda and propaganda without verifying the veracity of the news gives state actors and governments impunity. The bending of truth to shoehorn it into Britain’s position that Russia was behind poisoning of the Skripals is a case in point. Johnson misquoted Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, the lab that analyzed the poison used on the Skripals in April. Johnson’s statement contradicted the declaration of the lab, at Porton Down, which never said the poison, Novichok, was made in Russia.
“We have not identified the precise source,” Aitkenhead said in an interview, though he added creating such a substance was “probably only in the capabilities of a state actor.”
Johnson has been roundly criticized by the opposition in Britain for misleading the public. Taking politicians like Johnson at their word poses a danger to not only the credibility of the media but also to the public’s understanding of such issues in a democracy.
In the age of fake news, it’s the journalists’ responsibility of check the authenticity of sources and the accuracy of news reported. They should have the diligence to cross-check facts and the boldness to question state officials, who might be masquerading propaganda as news.