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Lies, damned lies and ‘fake news’


As the war on ‘fake news’ rolls on – most recently with Facebook’s appointment of former deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg in response to mounting accusations – Speak managing editor Laura Smith considers brand journalists’ responsibility for telling the truth

Journalism, as a trade, does not generally have the best reputation – sometimes with good reason. But amidst continued concern about so-called ‘fake news’ there is, we hope, a growing recognition of the value journalists can bring, when we use our skills and code of ethics with integrity.

‘Fake news’ is nothing new. It’s only the latest incarnation of propaganda that goes back to the first written words (and probably even before those). What is new, as confirmed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers earlier this year, is the speed with which false facts can spread around the world – and the apparent unwillingness of big tech to tackle them.

It’s no surprise then that trust in traditional and online-only news outlets is at an all-time low, driven by suspicions of bias, spin and hidden agendas – as well as a perceived decline in journalistic standards. This is key: although ‘fake news’ – the deliberate fabrication of facts for a particular end – and ‘wrong news’ – the result of poor proof-reading and fact-checking – are two different things, the proliferation of the first makes the avoidance of the second even more important.

The reputational risks to brands are real. Just look at the spoof tweet which forced JD Wetherspoon to deny that they’d banned staff from wearing Remembrance Day poppies, or Starbucks, which wasn’t, as claimed in another fake post, offering free coffee to undocumented US immigrants.

The question that a thousand brand journalists are asking is: “What does all this mean for us?” As audiences become both more questioning of what they consume and, paradoxically, more likely to be getting their news from ‘echo chamber’ social feeds, how can brands gain trust – and keep it? 

At Speak, we help our clients tell stories about their brands. As brand journalists, we cannot claim to be impartial. We can’t tell both sides of the story in the way that news journalists might aspire – and sometimes fail – to do. Our job is to tell the truth according to our clients.

What we can do is bring our journalistic training and standards to the stories we tell to ensure that they are beyond reproach. At its most basic, that means knowing how to find and tell a good tale: Speaksters all share the kind of curiosity that killed the cat. It also means treating interviewees with respect and reporting what they say accurately. It means checking for spelling and grammatical howlers, and then checking again. And, of course, it means always getting our facts straight.

Whether or not a brand is paying for a story to be published, we want that story to be real. After that, it’s up to the reader to decide.

Content worksLaura Smith