Why we fall for fake news

An exclusive excerpt from Rob Brotherton’s latest book, Bad News: Why we fall for fake news, that delves into the psychology of news and fake news despite the unprecedented abundance of information.

 |  10-minute read |   03-08-2020
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In today’s world, we carry the news with us, getting instant alerts about events around the globe. Yet despite this unprecedented abundance of information, it seems increasingly difficult to know what’s true and what’s not. In Bad News, author Rob Brotherton delves into the psychology of news, reviewing how the latest research can help navigate this supposedly post-truth world. This book answers one of the greatest questions of the age: how can we all be smarter consumers of news?

We present an excerpt from the chapter titled Breaking News.

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Bad News: Why we fall for fake news. Paperback. Rs 599

Excerpt courtesy: Bloomsbury

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From that inauspicious beginning, the telegraph quickly became an essential element of news reporting. A decade later, twenty thousand miles of telegraph wire had been strung from the East Coast to the Midwest. Getting access to the telegraph wires was expensive, though. Operators charged by the word. And its limited capacity led to frustration as journalists converged on telegraph offices after some newsworthy event and were forced to wait their turn as operators tapped out the Morse-code messages. Soon, several of New York’s dailies banded together to form a cooperative news- gathering service that would become the Associated Press. By 1856, North America’s vast telegraphic tendrils extended to the small wooden hut next to the Cape Race lighthouse, where the crew of the Associated Press newsboat waited to race out and meet passing ships.

Again, publishers were enamored of the new technology. “The creation of the science of Electro-Magnetism and its embodiment in the Telegraph, undoubtedly ranks foremost among that series of mighty discoveries that have gone to subjugate matter under the domain of mind,” a New York Times article declared. “Whatever may be accomplished hereafter will be a matter-of-course.”

By midcentury, timeliness had been cemented as a news value. In 1851, Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, confidently told a British parliamentary committee that, in America, “the paper which brings the quickest news is the one looked to.”

Most news insiders cheered the accelerating speed of news. Judging by the unprecedented circulation figures of the nineteenth-century penny papers, readers, too, were engrossed by the daily developments that filled news pages. Along the way, however, critics have questioned whether faster is necessarily better for news. One of the earliest skeptics was a seventeenth-century playwright, Ben Jonson. To Jonson, the very notion of news printed on a regular schedule, designed to fill a set number of pages, was nonsensical. In his satirical play The Staple of News, Jonson implied that periodical news ceased to be a public good and became a mere commodity, “a weekly cheat to draw money.”

The eighteenth-century journalist and novelist Henry Fielding compared newspapers to a stagecoach, “which performs constantly the same course, empty as well as full.” After all, publishing a paper once a week meant that it had to be filled. So, what would fill the pages if nothing particularly noteworthy had happened that week? Having a set quota of news to print could change the very definition of news, the increase in quantity diluting the substance. A newspaper “consists of just the same number of words whether there be any news in it or not,” Fielding wrote.

This only became more of a concern as the number of newspapers and their page counts expanded throughout the nineteenth century. New York’s penny papers seemed determined, according to one observer, to fill their pages with “the name and age of every dog that dies within a hundred miles of the city, with the color of his hair and the quality of his bark.” One nineteenth-century journalist complained, “Everyone now hurried to print what nobody thought it worthwhile to say.”

More recently, Carl Bernstein, the reporter of Watergate fame, voiced similar reservations. “The greatest felony in the news business today,” Bernstein wrote in a 1992 article for the New Republic, “is to be behind, or to miss, a major story.” Merely to seem behind is a liability in the news business, he said. “So speed and quantity substitute for thoroughness and quality, for accuracy and context. The pressure to compete, the fear that somebody else will make the splash first, creates a frenzied environment in which a blizzard of information is presented and serious questions may not be raised.”

To Bernstein’s point about accuracy, it is undoubtedly true that breaking news often gets things wrong. To take one notable example, during the live coverage of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, BBC News mistakenly reported that a third building had collapsed, when it was still visibly standing over  the  reporter’s  shoulder. That  the  building  did collapse twenty minutes later fueled conspiracy theories that it had been a preordained, controlled explosion. Likewise the all-too-frequent mass shootings in America are often accompanied by mistaken initial reports of a second gunman or misidentification of the culprit, again giving grist to conspiracists who take later corrections as evidence of cover-up.

Reputable news outlets acknowledge the implicit tension between breaking news and accuracy. The BBC’s twenty-four-hour news channel, for example, claimed in publicity material, “We aim to be first with breaking news but our overriding commitment is to accuracy.”

Many online outlets that report breaking news have taken to including some kind of disclaimer. “This is a developing story,” reads NPR’s. “Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene.We will update as the situation develops.”

Mistakes are inevitable, even when events aren’t unfolding live. Reporting breaking events as they occur can have value, even knowing that some details are unconfirmed and likely to be wrong. As yet, no quantitative analysis has been made of how mistake prone reports of breaking news are, or the effects of such inaccuracy on viewers. We’ll come back to the issue of accuracy and corrections in the news more broadly in Chapter 8.

In any case, the people criticizing the rush to be first weren’t just questioning the accuracy of breaking news. They were questioning whether increasing the pace of news warps the very definition of news, lowering the bar of what is considered newsworthy. When it comes to contemporary breaking news, it’s rarely as dramatic as the horror of 9/11 and other shocking events. “When journalists or academics talk about breaking news, they invariably focus on untypical examples of great drama or import,” the authors of one study of breaking news point out, such as assassination attempts, terrorist attacks, shootings, and other tragedies. “The problem is that, most of the time, it is none of these things.”

The researchers were Justin Lewis and Stephen Cushion, two professors of communication at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. They focused on the United Kingdom’s two twenty-four-hour news channels, BBC News 24 and Sky News, spanning from 2004 to 2007. They analyzed just over one hundred and sixty hours of news coverage, amounting to more than three thousand individual news items.

Breaking news, they found, had gradually become an increasingly common part of twenty-four-hour news culture. In 2004, stories presented as breaking news were comparatively rare. On the BBC, which is commercial- free and funded by a mandatory license fee, breaking news stories made up just 3 percent of all stories. On the commercial Sky News channel, it made up slightly more, at 4.5 percent of all news stories. But by 2007, the proportions had grown to more than 10 percent on both networks.

Just as critics from the seventeenth century onward had speculated, Lewis and Cushion found that over the three years they followed the news, the threshold for what warrants breaking news alerts had lowered, becoming more “tabloid oriented” than news overall. By that, they meant that crime, human-interest stories, and pieces about celebrities and sports had become increasingly likely to be reported as breaking news. By 2007 close to four out of ten breaking news stories covered those topics—double the proportion of regular news items on those topics.

Crime, in particular, made up a quarter of all breaking news stories in 2007. Yet, curiously, the breaking news often wasn’t all that new. Looking at a subset of breaking news stories that both the BBC and Sky News had covered, Lewis and Cushion found only a single breaking story that reported a new crime. Indeed, most of the stories reported as breaking news were not unexpected events, but actually “anticipated developments of ongoing stories”—trials, verdicts, and the like.

More disconcertingly, much of the breaking news contained little in the way of original reporting or substantive insight. Most breaking stories basically repeated wire alerts, sent to every newsroom by services such as the Associated Press. Compared to regular news, breaking news stories tended to feature fewer outside sources such as members of the public, politicians, or experts.

This might all be defensible if the stories covered as breaking news had real news value. Yet Lewis and Cushion also observed a decreasing tendency for the breaking news items to be followed up. Around half of breaking news stories were revisited in later reporting, suggesting that the other half weren’t important enough to follow up on. Moreover, only about a quarter of the stories that the researchers sampled in 2007 were covered as “breaking news” on both channels. About one out of five stories that were reported as breaking news on one of the channels didn’t warrant a mention on the other channel at all, suggesting surprisingly little consensus about which specific events are worth covering as breaking news.

Lewis and Cushion’s conclusions were cutting: “The emphasis on being first appears to have created an assembly line of breaking news production that has little to do with being informative or communicating news well.” The most time-consuming aspect of reporting news well is the application of professional judgment that goes into checking facts, providing context, and communicating the story effectively—not to mention deciding whether a story is worth reporting as breaking news in the first place. Rushing news to audiences means churning out information with little regard for these processes. “To boast of being first,” Lewis and Cushion wrote, “is, effectively, to boast of abandoning such judgments.”

We could, once again, blame prioritizing speed over substance on news producers and smugly absolve ourselves of responsibility. One historian of the news accused journalists of “fetishism of the present.” It is a “ritual of the media tribe,” he wrote. “Getting the story first is a matter of journalistic pride, but one that has little to do with journalistic quality or public service.”

But by blaming the problem on a personal failing of news producers, we’d be ignoring our own role as news consumers. After their dispiriting analysis of breaking news, Lewis and Cushion concluded that, like the nineteenth-century publisher bragging about speed of his newsboat, the contemporary push toward breaking news is largely about marketing. In the arms race of news speed that has been escalating since the nineteenth century, labeling some recent or ongoing event “breaking news” is the current pinnacle of expected timeliness. The rush to break news doesn’t improve the news; indeed, it probably makes it worse. But fail to regularly provide breaking news and your audience’s attention might wander elsewhere. “Breaking news is there because it has a certain feel,” Lewis and Cushion write, “rather than because of the significance of its content.”

Also read: Fake news floods before fact checking became a legit job

Writer

Rob Brotherton Rob Brotherton @rob_brotherton

The author is an academic psychologist and science writer who likes to walk on the weird side of psychology.

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