It is difficult to defend the TBC journalists who were suspended by the national broadcaster after broadcasting a fake news story about US President Donald Trump praising his Tanzanian counterpart.
While it is easy to simply laugh at their gaffe, we also have to take this chance to attempt to wrap our heads around one of the biggest threats in information dissemination in our day and time: fake news.
Over the last few months there have been a number of cases where people have had to release statements informing the public to disregard fake stories that were being circulated in social media.
Sickening of them all was the false report of the demise of Retired President Ali Hassan Mwinyi.
If anyone is going to feel the pinch of this fake and unprofessional news phenomenon, it will be the traditional media houses. This is because with increasing digitisation, professional news reporting is increasingly becoming unattractive, especially among young people, for a number of reasons that I will discuss below.
First, in an era where there is ample diversity of content that is accessed “on-demand”, both the types of information, and the styles of disseminating it are inevitably shifting towards populism.
News, as traditionally packaged by media houses does not offer sufficient entertainment value. People, especially young people, are turning towards informal social media outlets for content. This is exposing them to consuming content that is either watered-down or fabricated.
Second, editorial requirements are rendering it difficult for traditional media houses to circulate news faster than social media outlets. More and more people now spend more hours online than they do/ would do reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, watching TV, or all three combined. So in essence, the supply of well researched, well-documented news is failing to keep pace with the overwhelming demand for content on digital platforms.
Social media outlets bridging this gap currently, populating users’ feeds with content, without caring if it is real, ethical or even relevant.
Third, there is a risk factor associated with formality. While blunders may not cost digital news outlets anything because they are smaller and mostly informal establishments, traditional media houses are generally more risk averse because mistakes for them can be costly. Apart from reputational risks that wrong reporting can expose them to, they also have much more assets to protect from lawsuits.
So am I advocating for traditional media houses to be ditched in favour of digital platforms? Not by a long shot. Despite all the disadvantages they face in this new era, they are still needed to deliver quality journalism. Wherever the role of quality journalism is taken for granted (as it often is), poor journalism always survives to the point where it drives society into decay, hate or violence.
We must not therefore underestimate the impact that long term exposure to fake news could have on our society.
Media houses themselves must play the biggest role in weeding out fake news. But prior to that, for some, optimising their newsrooms may be a more immediate need. For instance, the case of the TBC gaffe which “took nine casualties” still leaves me wondering why such a low to medium-importance news story required that amount of human resources.
The job of weeding out fake news will require traditional media houses to be nimbler. They will need to invest in collecting, packaging and disseminating content in a pace and style that is consistent with the requirements of the ‘digital-era’, without violating any important journalistic codes. As people pay more attention to such content, their appetite for fake or poorly done news is likely to diminish.
Another way to neutralise the effect of fake news stories is by “directly counteraction”. The job of responding to fake news stories cannot be left to the persons affected directly. A media house that sets up a desk to proactively police and expose fake news on digital platforms, as well as promptly receive and answer queries about such stories, stands to benefit a lot from being trusted by the people. A joint desk by the media houses through the media council may perform even better and be of greater benefit to the entire media environment.
This is a new era, with new and grave challenges in news. It sounds that our good old watchdog, the traditional media, will have to learn new tricks.