During the Rhodes Forum 2018, which took place in Greece on 5-6 October, the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute held its first ever panel dedicated to rebuilding trust in media in the era of ‘fake news’.

Leading international journalists participating in the event included Eylon Levy from I24; Simon Shuster from Time Magazine; Mary Dejevsky, well known for her work in The Independent and The Guardian; Crystal Orderson from The Africa Report, and Ben Aris from IntelliNews. The discussion, which focused on the media’s role in the age of ‘post-truth politics’, was moderated by Stefan Grobe from Euronews.

Stefan Grobe and Eylon Levy during the Rhodes Forum 2018

Eylon Levy kicked off the discussion by saying that he had not heard of the term ‘fake news’ before US President Donald Trump used it. Levy outlined the two main ways the term is used today: “One is in the sense of dismissing news reports that are uncomfortable even if they are entirely true, which seems to be the main form in which Donald Trump uses the term fake news. The other is of course the very systematic attempts to disseminate deliberately fake news – in particular the example of Russian ‘troll farms’ which create and promote misinformation, or knowingly inaccurate information aimed at getting hits or driving ratings”.

Ben Aris described the phenomenon of fake news as “distressing”. He talked about how significantly journalism as a profession has changed over the years. Aris said that “the standards have changed, the requirement to try and be objective, the requirement to have two quotes, the requirement to back everything up with evidence and to take yourself out of the story has slowly slipped away.”

Ben Aris, BNE Intellinews during Rhodes Forum 2018

Ben Aris, BNE Intellinews during Rhodes Forum 2018

“Phrases like ‘it’s clear that’, ‘there’s no other explanation for’, and ‘it’s obvious that’, are phrases that should not be getting into anything other than opinion pieces, and yet they are part of reporting now,” Aris said.

Aris highlighted that the pressure, in part due to social media and new technologies, on journalists in the field to deliver quickly as a key part of the problem. As a result, the story is less about the facts of the case and more about the mood of people at a particular time. This is a fundamental part of the narrative in the media for stories about Russia, Aris said.

Mary Dejevsky and Crystal Orderson during Rhodes Forum 2018

Mary Dejevsky and Crystal Orderson during Rhodes Forum 2018

Mary Dejevsky noted that regarding the Brexit referendum, “my view, and it may be a minority view in the UK, is that social media and the Trump phenomenon and ‘fake news’ have had maybe less effect on the UK media and the UK political scene than they have almost anywhere else in the world.”

“The British press has always been opinionated and politicised, so its nothing new that the press at least is engaged in a political battle”, Dejevsky said. “It doesn’t seem to me that what we’re now calling ‘fake news’ is a new phenomenon in Great Britain; in some ways, Tony Blair and his spin machine was a much more sophisticated version of ‘fake news’ in the sense that it was designed to use facts but spin them in a particular way”, Dejevsky said, tracing ‘fake news’ back through the last 20-30 years of political discourse in the UK.

Simon Shuster looked at how the ‘fake news’ phenomenon differs country to country by looking at Germany and recent polls about ‘fake news’ and ‘misinformation’ in which a majority say they are aware of it and know to filter it out. He identified the reason for this as clear efforts by Chancellor Merkel to counter the phenomenon, as well as the specific media environment which exists in Germany, in which public broadcasters and newspapers dominate the media scene. This traditional media environment is not, Shuster argued, particularly conducive to the expansion of ‘fake news’.

Crystal Orderson voiced concerns within Africa over the derogatory comments Trump has made about the continent. She traced the impact that Trump tweeting ‘fake news’ stories about ‘land grabs’ in South Africa has had on the country’s politics and economy: His ‘late night tweet’ sparked a market downturn and required a political response.

This is the first time that the Rhodes Forum has brought leading international journalists together to participate in a roundtable discussion focused specifically on issues relating to the challenges of working in the media today. The Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute hopes that this discussion will spark further and more profound examination of the changes underway in media ecosystems across the world.

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More publications related to the Rhodes Forum here.