Liz Corbin: Fight Fake News with Quality Journalism

Making trusted news is very expensive. Creating fake news in your bedroom, with a laptop and a camera, is inexpensive. You should not be able to profit from that in the same way as a genuine and quality news organization—says Liz Corbin, the Head of News at BBC World News, in an interview with Konrad Niklewicz.

Konrad Niklewicz: How far are we from acknowledging that social platforms like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter are the dominant sources of information and opinion for an average citizen worldwide?

Liz Corbin: We have to remember that they are still, to a certain extent, platforms: a place where people find information. Whether they are dominant or not will vary from country to country—but they have become hugely influential in the way news is distributed, and other information is disseminated. Nobody can ignore that; nobody can pretend that social media doesn’t exist and nobody can put the genie back in the bottle.

Social media platforms have become curators of content in a way that we have never seen before. They have become a primary source of information for a hugely significant number of people who only access news content via Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. American Pew Research estimates that half of Facebook users get their daily portion of news via Facebook. Many people, especially younger people, no longer have TV sets in their house. They watch all video content online. That is why these platforms have a huge impact.

What we, the journalists, can do is to produce great content which has truth and impartiality at the heart of it, but make it in a way that is going to be shareable, viral video, reaching many people.

In the old media environment, now eclipsing, information and opinion were distributed top-down, with journalists and editors playing the role of gatekeepers. For all the inconvenience, it had one significant advantage: more or less, in most cases, it guaranteed that published stories are facts-based and the opinions—reasoned, even if sometimes controversial. Now, the gatekeepers are falling, and any piece of content can go viral, to be seen by millions, regardless how profoundly untrue it is. What might be the long-term consequences of the new media ecosystem?

It is a challenge to all of those who work in the traditional news media. We have to create our content in a way which is competitive in this particular environment. There’s no point in pretending the problem doesn’t exist—it does, and we need to find a way to work within that new ecosystem. The fact that “anything” can go viral poses a huge question about what responsibility the platforms themselves take.

What we, the journalists, can do is to produce great content which has truth and impartiality at the heart of it, but make it in a way that is going to be shareable, viral video, reaching many people. We need to be on Facebook and other platforms because people want us to be there, they simply prefer to receive the news content this way. All news organizations have made big strides towards adapting to this new paradigm. The significant shift in the last 10-15 years is that media is moving away from being the curators of the content, effectively deciding what people see and what they don’t, to a situation where the audience (not any single medium!) decides what it wants to see. They are no longer satisfied to get what they are given from a limited number of news sources, we, the media, need to compete for their attention. Regarding the long-term consequences, one can already see a tectonic shift: the news organizations are moving towards personalized content. Take the macro level: the BBC News website looks different depending on where in the world you are. The front pages vary so they’re optimized for the region you’re reading it in.

The idea that one size ts all is no longer tenable. We all need to make great strides in making content accessible to different audiences—because in this new world we know so much about who is consuming that content. In the past, particularly for the broadcast media, you would put your TV news bulletin out and you would get only some indications of the ratings; you would only roughly know how many people are watching. With the online media content, you know precisely how many people are accessing your content.

Even millennials, who you might think would be moving away from traditional media, still come to us for news. We reach 69% of affluent millennials globally each month.

I think that is very valuable in terms of making sure that you reach the audience that you haven’t traditionally reached.

Making trusted news is very expensive, it’s not something you can do on the cheap. Creating fake news in your bedroom, with a laptop and a camera, is inexpensive.

I think that many news organizations are finding that hugely useful information, to make sure that they are creating a range of news content that everybody finds exciting and wants to access. And it’s working for us. BBC.com reaches almost 100 million unique browsers each month and our TV channel is growing around the world, with around the same number tuning in every week. Even millennials, who you might think would be moving away from traditional media, still come to us for news. We reach 69% of affluent millennials globally each month.

Don’t you find it unfair that in this new, complex eco-system of the new media, news organizations like the BBC, putting an effort into making sure that the piece of information is accurate, can lose to mere individuals, handsome men (or women) with good presentation, making people believe in something which is just not right? To an ordinary viewer, a nice guy sitting on a couch and making a self-video of his own might be more trustworthy than well-established news organizations, because of his/ her appearance, the “one of us” style?

That is a major concern for us and for other broadcasters and news organizations, who place a great deal of value on news you can trust. That is a question to the platforms: what is their social responsibility? How can they better suppress the so-called fake news phenomenon and make it easier for people to nd news they can trust? We at the BBC, the most trusted international news broadcaster in the world, feel very strongly that there should be some responsibility to prioritize reliable news and not the content generated by this lone guy, disseminating viral fake news from his couch, either for commercial or political purposes.

Making trusted news is very expensive, it’s not something you can do on the cheap. Creating fake news in your bedroom, with a laptop and a camera, is inexpensive—you can generate attractive content by making everything up. You should not be able to profit from that in the same way as a genuine and quality news organization. So this is a question for 2018: how will the social media platforms start dealing with this. As far as the BBC is concerned, we will just continue to make content that is of the highest standard and to make it in a way that works on these sites—given the size of their audience.

To what extent do digital media, social platforms, and the echo-chambers they create influence politics now?

Just the same way news media needs social networks to reach people, so do politicians. It is inconceivable now that you would have an election where the only campaigning they do would be doing door-to-door, giving away leaflets and running some TV commercials. I can’t imagine candidates not using the social media platforms.

The real issue with campaigns in social media is that we all too often find it hard to identify what the source of a given video, link, or post is. That is where social media poses a problem. It is the issue of fairness, and the public’s ability to understand the essential topics. A leaflet, a TV commercial, would typically carry the logo of the party and the name of the candidate—because it is regulated this way. It is not the same in the social media. Services like the BBC Reality Check are there to tackle this new challenge. What we are especially worried about are the echo chambers. Once people get entrenched in their views, it can be very, very difficult to shift them.

The recent announcement by Facebook that it would stop using its “disputed” warning on fake news stories didn’t surprise us at all. People dealing with fake news, those who have been doing fact checking for a long time, have discovered that debunking fake news doesn’t always work in the way you expect: many people who are exposed to fake news treat corrections not as fair and balanced, but only as the “opposite view” and become more entrenched in their opinions.

Should we consider to start treating the owners of social media platforms the way we did TV, radio, or printed press? What if we make social media platforms legally responsible for the content they publish?

That is something lots of governments and supranational organizations, like the European Union, are looking at at the moment. The European Commission has just started a consultation on the topic. They will be looking at whether regulation is the answer to the problem of fake news. I don’t have my own opinion on this topic. I can only guess it is going to be quite concerning if one starts regulating social media. Why? It is so different from the broadcast media, so different from the print media.

People dealing with fake news, those who have been doing fact checking for a long time, have discovered that debunking fake news doesn’t always work in the way you expect.

Social media is not linear. And there is the issue of the free speech: where would you draw the line? Self-regulation is another option. We should see whether it would bring better results than top-down regulation. Social media is so different I believe we need smart ideas to think about how to improve the experience and the public service element.

Social media is so different I believe we need smart ideas to think about how to improve the experience and the public service element.

Education is also key. We at the BBC have launched a program supporting young people to distinguish between real news stories and fake or false information. This particular project is targeted at secondary schools across the United Kingdom. Up to 1000 schools will be offered mentoring from our best BBC journalists.

Should we consider redefining the responsibility of journalists and media in general? In the wake of the Brexit referendum, many commentators said that British tabloid media played an essential role in creating the anti-wave. Apparently biased against the EU, they have been falsely portraying (or even ridiculing) the EU for over 30 years. The list of EU-related lies they have been publishing is pages-long.

There are some issues that have to be raised when discussing the Brexit referendum contention. First: one should never underestimate the fact that the issue of British membership in the EU has long been a source of controversy and disagreement in the UK, far longer and more strongly felt than in other EU countries. It wasn’t that we have suddenly decided to hold this referendum and then it got swayed by the “Leave” campaign and the newspapers that supported it. Second, the UK has a long history of partisan news reporting. Certainly, there is a general code of conduct for newspapers, but they are not required to be politically balanced. To the contrary: they may have their own, strong views – they certainly did that during the Brexit campaign.

I was based in Singapore during the Brexit referendum, so I didn’t follow every detail of the campaign—but I know for sure that it was a fierce campaign, with a fair amount of disinformation around. But I wouldn’t say, by any stretch, that it was entirely down to the news organizations. It would be very difficult to say that the news organizations that supported the idea of Brexit created the actual Brexit vote. Having said that, the amount of disinformation and twisted statistics used during the referendum campaign was hugely concerning. The BBC Reality Check team worked during the campaign; our reporters would repeatedly try to put the claims and comments in context. But in the end, it was and still is politicians’ responsibility to run a clean campaign.

In the UK, the public is incredibly used to the newspapers having a political bias. If you pick up The Guardian, The Sun, or The Times, you understand what you are going to get. And that brings us back to the issue of the social media: the notion of the source is fundamental. If you pick up the copy of The Sun, you will understand the political stance of that particular paper. But if you see a similar post on the social media—and you can’t easily see what the source is—it is more difficult for you to make a judgment about that. The BBC went to great lengths to be balanced, and we succeeded in that during the Brexit referendum. During any elections in the UK, there are strict rules for media, particularly for the broadcasters: both leading parties should get an equal number of appearances on broadcast media. For the smaller parties, a different but fair number would also be set. In the Brexit referendum broadcasters were required to give equal balance to “Leave” and “Remain.”

Was this approach right? Does always a “balanced view” equal “a more accurate view”? The one closer to the reality?

We can discuss it using the example of another highly controversial issue—climate change. Theoretically, you could present two views: one person saying that the climate is changing, and another person saying that there’s no such thing as climate change. But you don’t have to do that! The evidence is so overwhelming that climate change is happening that the presence of someone saying that climate change doesn’t exist makes your coverage inaccurate. You are impartial as long as you tell the truth about the topic. You could apply the same philosophy to the Brexit debate: in some situations, giving 50/50 prominence to two different arguments makes the coverage unbalanced.

If you pick up The Guardian, The Sun, or The Times, you understand what you are going to get. And that brings us back to the issue of the social media: the notion of the source is fundamental.

Impartiality is far more complex than simple 50/50. Sometimes in the debates, a journalist has to stand up and say: no, this is true and this is not, despite some people believing otherwise. That’s what BBC Reality Check does.

Making sure that the public understands an issue in its entirety and in the necessary context is crucial. Being balanced and impartial doesn’t mean that you just say: “On the one hand, and on the other.” Too often journalists are faced with situations where the two incredibly intelligent people from two different camps say the complete opposite. If the topic is complicated, if it requires extensive knowledge, the public doesn’t stand a chance telling the truth from the lie. It’s the journalist’s job to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It is not enough just to say it; you need to make the public believe you and to help them understand the subject. It is essential to weigh up the evidence and put it in context. The public no longer wants to be told what it should think. They want to be shown why something has happened and how the conclusions are reached. To take the audience with you, you need to prove things to them.

If the topic is complicated, if it requires extensive knowledge, the public doesn’t stand a chance telling the truth from the lie. It’s the journalist’s job to separate the wheat from the chaff.


LIZ CORBIN

is a journalist and an editor, BBC Reality Check Editor. At the end of January 2018, she was to take the position of the Head of News at BBC World News. In the past Liz worked as the Singapore Bureau Editor for BBC News. She ran the teams which broadcast live and recorded programs from Singapore on the BBC’s international news channel BBC World News. She also led the Asia digital team which writes articles and produces video content for the BBC News website and social media accounts.

She headed the BBC’s business news coverage from South Asia and Asia-Pacific and worked closely with all BBC News teams across the region. Before arriving in Singa- pore nearly 4 years ago, Liz worked for the BBC in London. She worked in domestic news for most of her career including as a producer on the BBC’s most prestigious evening news programs and as the producer to the BBC’s Political Editor in Westminster. She was a program editor for 3 years on BBC World News before taking the posting in Singapore.

Konrad Niklewicz

Konrad Niklewicz is currently the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies Visiting Research Fellow and managing director of the Civic Institute and a guest lecturer at the University of Warsaw. He previously served as Spokesperson for the Polish Presidency of the Council of the EU and Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Regional Development. Previously he was a journalist and editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza.

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Current issue - 01/2018

Freedom for Nations

The right of Self-Determination has changed the world forever. Yet, today's European system still wrestles with the very problems the 14 points were trying to address. How do we read a heritage of Wilsonian policy in current circumstances?

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