“The fightback begins in Northern Ireland!” says Byrnes

Siobhan SINNERTON, Jon SNOW, and Dorothy BYRNE. “The importance of journalism in an era of fake news”, Belfast Media Festival, The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

“The fightback begins in Northern Ireland!” says Byrnes
The importance of journalism in an era of fake news #BMF2017
by Allan LEONARD
17 November 2017

As part of the Belfast Media Festival 2017, there was a moderated discussion on how ‘mainstream media’ is responding to the evermore prevalent environment of ‘fake news’, with Channel 4 Commissioning Editor, Siobhan Sinnerton, chairing the session with Dorothy Byrne (Head of News and Current Affairs) and presenter, Jon Snow.

Sinnerton began by asking what a challenge fake news is for all of us, this “flood of misinformation”. Snow replied that he didn’t really know what a definition of fake news is, because he has seen it all during his journalistic career, while Byrne asserted that the concept of fake news is a fake itself: “If it’s fake, it didn’t happen so it can’t be news.” She suggested that we replace ‘fake news’ with the word ‘rubbish’ and instead concentrate on the importance of journalism.

Next was how to answer an apparent conundrum of scolding social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter, for facilitating misinformation at such speed, yet legitimate media outlets using it to disseminate news. Snow replied that they need to recognise a responsibility of providing a “bedrock of dependent information”, yet he immediately mooted whether that should include Channel 4 and/or the Daily Mail, which he recognised was a value judgement. Byrne suggested a kite-mark for news providers that are deemed to be trustworthy sources.

As for whether and how social media providers should be regulated, Snow cited how media is regulated in the UK as a positive exemplar. Likewise, Byrne credited regulation with continued very high levels of trust amongst the British public with tv journalism (as surveyed annually by OFCOM).

Byrne said that it was time for journalists to all stand together to stand up for the value of journalism, with strong and powerful journalist organisations. Snow was sceptical, replying that journalists as a bred will not do that, “because we’re wrapped up with wanting to be a journalist”.

“So should journalists be on a war footing?” Sinnerton asked. Snow repeated the above riddle, whereby private citizens are engaged with social networks that connects people to one another, but with a downside that these networks serve as a medium for disseminating “dangerous stuff”: “How do you stop one yet allow people’s freedom?” Byrne remarked that it can depend upon which country you’re in, because in some places one can’t believe anything one reads, journalists get killed, “where Twitter is the most truthful place and governments will try to block it”.

Snow and Byrne both commented on their visits to schools. Snow said that the children he talks to are “switched on”; they know the upside and downside of social media. Byrne demanded any necessary change in the UK education system so that young people, from age four or five, learn how to spot fake news.

Earlier, Sinnerton played the following video about basic fact-checking:

Sinnerton opened up the discussion to the audience, where a member of the audience asked whether there should be more positive news (with Snow begging the question of what news is about). Alex Graham (Chair, Scott Trust) said that social media platforms need to be regulated supranationally, e.g. by the European Union. Someone else asked why it takes hundreds of people to die before people care, in order to try to prevent disasters such as the Grenfell fire. Snow explained some of this to the demise of local media, which historically serves such a role: “Social networks ought to be a means of highlighting such issues, but why it hasn’t is worth examining and learning from.”

I had the opportunity to introduce myself as editor of FactCheckNI, Northern Ireland’s first dedicated fact-checking service, and tried to add to two points raised in this discussion. As for journalists collaborating together, I cited CrossCheck, where 37 media organisations came together to jointly fact-check claims made during the 2017 French presidential election. In regards to kite-marking trustworthy sources of information, I explained how fact-checking projects work to a code of principles overseen by the International Fact-Checking Network, with compliance overseen by an independent third party, and that the audience should look for this badge if they are on a proclaimed fact-checking site.

Byrne acknowledged the CrossCheck project, which must have emboldened her zeal for standing up for the importance of journalism: “Yes, the fightback starts now, and Northern Ireland is where it begins!”

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