Let shoe leather be the stamp of truth

IN SCOOP, EVELYN WAUGH's fictionalised account of reporting Italy's invasion of Abyssinia, his most memorable sketch is that of "journalistic legend" Wenlock Jake. Jake is said once to have been dispatched by train to a Balkan capital in search of a non-existent uprising. Waking in the wrong city, the reporter imagined distant streets in uproar so vividly that his resulting copy sparked an actual revolution in the capital where he had missed his stop.

Scoop cover

The novel, published in 1938, was Waugh's dig at an industry in which he had not prospered; among its targets, however, was "fake news" - not quite the emergent phenomena that alarmists suggest, then. Scoop is an entertaining tale, for sure, but can we learn from it yet?

Concern with contemporary "fake news" is at times shrill - two enquires led by British politicians are currently underway. Nevertheless, it is a problem that has been magnified many times over since the days of the hapless William Boot, Waugh's hero. Over 100 fake US news websites operate from a single Macedonian town; social media algorithms confine us to preconception-affirming information bubbles; and some politicians prosper by appealing to prejudice over facts.

Research at Stanford University attempted to measure the ability of young people to distinguish credible web news from the obverse, with dismaying results. Studies over 18 months found that around a third of the sample: did not understand that material labeled "sponsored content" differed from editorial; could not distinguish fake news sites from the real thing; and were effortlessly bamboozled by professional-looking web graphics. The report's authors concluded that a lack of "civic online reasoning" threatens democracy.

Another study shows that simply rebutting untruths often reinforces the convictions of those who have fallen prey to them.

It all poses the question: what can journalists ourselves do that might turn back the tide of deliberate misinformation?

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Some of the answer lies in a steadfast commitment to our time-served principles. Honest, ethical reporting that is rooted in our code of conduct is key to retaining our currency. We should also embrace the opportunities to explain the provenance of any assertion that we make (without compromising confidential sources).

Defence of journalistic ethics should remain at the core of our collective industrial work - fighting for a conscience clause for those pressured to report unethically, insisting on staffing levels sufficient to guarantee quality, and campaigning for the fair pay necessary for talented journalists to produce quality work.

Journalists' reflex to foster media literacy must become as instinctive as that to defend press freedom. All citizens should learn to navigate the modern information blizzard, and our professional future depends on promoting that ability.

More than anything else, however, we need to make veracity intrinsic to our product. Some means to do this may be novel - using technology to provide engagement and verification.

The deployment and display of shoe leather, however, remains the distinguishing feature of quality journalism. Verify facts, obtain further proofs, seek opposing views - and then fashion narrative from both the product and the process of its gathering. We can't stop fake news, but we can make damn sure that those who consume our product know that they are getting the real thing.

"Truth will out" was Waugh's ostensible conclusion in Scoop, of course. That his work is still treated as a primer for entrants to our trade, however, shows that sometimes it is finding novel ways to tell the truth that ensures the most enduring resonance.