Even for seasoned journalists, it can be difficult to sift out the facts from the heap of misinformation that happens to support whatever you already believe. Others can be taken in by the most preposterous tales.
I’ve seen “news” items from sources such as the Southend News Network and the rather classier Suffolk Gazette passed on as if they were genuine. This is on a par with treating Monty Python as a documentary series, yet some people, it seems, are fooled.
But if the output of these spoof websites is (mostly) fun, there is a much more serious side to the deliberate spreading of lies and distortions.
Not that it’s a new phenomenon. Certain national newspapers have always been at it – though they do seem to have got more blatant lately.
As a trainee journalist I was taught that the boundary between reporting and opinion had to be very clear at all times. Now that boundary has been smudged to the point where a reader cannot tell news from opinion, fact from fiction.
The selection of what’s considered worth printing – and where – is a crucial factor in swaying public attitudes, too.
The Daily Mail ran its report about Thomas Mair’s conviction for the murder of MP Jo Cox on page 30. A white neo-Nazi jailed for the politically motivated (i.e. terrorist) assassination of a British MP. Page 30. Tucked away between a dull picture story about I’m A Celebrity and one about a Christmas advert.
Might it, perhaps, have made the front page – news-stand visible – if the killer had been a black, Muslim or immigrant terrorist? You know the answer to that.
Where’s the balance here?
But an addiction to supposed balance has its drawbacks too. To put it mildly. Again, the line between fact and opinion – sometimes lunatic opinion – becomes dangerously blurred.
I can’t put it better than one of the world’s finest reporters, Christiane Amanpour of the US news channel CNN.
“I believe in being truthful, not neutral,” she told fellow journalists at the Press Freedom Awards in New York last week.
And she made this vital point: “We cannot continue the old paradigm – let’s say over global warming, where 99.9 per cent of the empirical scientific evidence is given equal play with the tiny minority of deniers.”
I can’t think of a more important subject. Or one where supposed media “balance” has done more drastic harm.