George Claassen: Fake news and the natural selection of ignorance

Russia is at the centre of misinformation campaigns.

A decade after the multiple award-winning British journalist Nick Davies warned that the mass media are acting more like a global village idiot, highly ignorant and easily taken for a ride, fake news has become a common phenomenon. In Flat Earth News, Davies analysed the dangers threatening the vital role the media generally fulfil in democracies.

The public editor of News24, George Claassen, revisits Davies’s book and asks, have we learnt any lessons in the pursuit to report news accurately and credibly? 

One of the fundamental functions of the media is to educate and, through education, to enlighten. Shakespeare warned in Twelfth Night: “There is no darkness but ignorance.”

Nick Davies believes that the media have, to a large extent, reneged on their function to educate. He asks why a profession would lose touch with its primary function so that truth-telling disintegrates into the mass production of ignorance.

Revisiting a review on Flat Earth News I wrote ten years ago for By, Media24’s Saturday supplement for its Afrikaans dailies, I want to pose the question: Are the rocks in his own profession that Davies warned about, and which are endangering journalism’s safe passage, still applicable a decade later in light of fake news and the rise of social media?

In the Trump, Brexit and Putin era, and with bots spreading fake news, two highly respected American journalists – Bill Kovach (former director of the Nieman programme in journalism at Harvard University) and Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism – write in their book The Elements of Journalism that the need for the truth is greater in this new century, not less, because the probability of untruth has become so much more of an everyday occurrence.

Davies refers to the words of the Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward – with Carl Bernstein the thorn in the flesh of the Nixon administration – who emphasised that the best journalism is quite often practiced in conflict with management.

In his book, Davies quotes extensively from research by the University of Cardiff’s journalism school which, in alliance with various other research institutions, made a comprehensive study of the state and quality of journalism in the UK. The study exposed serious flaws of inaccuracy in the general day-to-day news reporting of British journalists, influenced by spin doctors and spokespeople for politicians, companies and other interest groups manipulating the news and journalists.

One of the strongest phenomena in modern day journalism drawing the wrath of Davies, is the way journalists are reporting at the behest of invisible puppet masters. Reporters take news releases of communication officials, public relations officers and spokespeople of government institutions, the private and other sectors of society virtually word for word, and publish or broadcast them under their own bylines, without any significant input of their own.

Unverified and second-hand material

Davies calls this Flat Earth Journalism, in which every possible claim, rumour, allegation or story is accepted without asking any critical questions. This, he surmises, runs through the unguarded gates of the media with the ease of a Brazilian goal scorer penetrating the English defence. With the rise of social media, this unscrutinised acceptance of “news” in the marketplace, is becoming one of the most serious dangers threatening democratic institutions – and the credibility of journalism as a whole.

In 2016, Prof Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Journalism School in New York, emphasised that “Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred… Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world” (my emphasis).

With it, social media has also become the vehicle for spreading fake news at an alarming pace, spreading untruths without proper checks and balances that have been an integral part of the media’s news gathering and reporting process for centuries.

The University of Cardiff, analysing 2 027 local news reports published by five British newspapers (The Times, The Guardian, the now dead Independent, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph), over a period of two weeks in 2006, found that any meaningful and independent journalism reflected in these reports was the exception rather than the rule. The study did not refer to investigative journalism as such, but to the basic principles that should apply to news judgment, checking of facts, balance in reporting, critical analysis and questioning of sources.

Davies writes that the Cardiff study showed that the most respected media in the UK continuously regurgitate and recirculate unverified and second-hand material. The researchers warned that they found many reports that were obviously written by news reporters, but which clearly seemed as if they were merely cut and pasted from another source. Only 1% of the studied reports, the so-called “wire news stories”, were credited and indicated as such by the five newspapers.

Davies compares journalism that does not make sure it is accurate to the human body without an immune system. If the primary aim of journalism is to tell the truth as accurately as possible, it means that the primary function of journalists must be to verify facts and to reject that which is not true. But, he says, something has changed, and this essential immune system has started to collapse.


Davies calls this type of superficial journalism “churnalism”. He analyses 10 basic rules why cost-cutting (fewer journalists must do more work) is so seriously affecting the integrity and independence of the news information system:

  • Choose mainly to report on stories which are cheap, fast and safe to be covered. Davies says media spokespeople of companies and other institutions, and their news releases, play a vital role; and the rewriting of news releases that are published under journalists’ own names has become a common occurrence.
  • Choose safe facts, especially those in which official sources are credited. Laws usually protect journalists when they quote a spokesperson of a government department or the police. In the European Union, the media cannot be sued for defamation if an official news release, for example, describes someone as a criminal; but if a man accuses a government official of being a criminal, the media can be sued if they repeat it.
  • Avoid the electrical fence. The rule of safe facts extends to an approach of submission to any organisation or individual who can hurt news organisations. Pressure and threats of defamation and prosecution against journalists are common, whether it be from politicians (Jacob Zuma against Zapiro, Jacques Pauw’s house being raided, Dr Harris Steinman, health consumer watchdog and editor of intimidated and sued by the sports supplements company USN), religious groups (religions often seem to be above criticism or exposure of immoral or other aberrant forms of behaviour, the Roman Catholic Church’s threats against journalists of the Boston Globe a recent example), or big business with money as a powerful deterrent.

Davies calls media law one of the oldest electrical fences that hinders news gathering and accurate reporting.

Well known electrical fences are the Israeli government; business pressure groups like the National Rifle Association in the USA preventing any steps to curtail gun control; moral and cultural pressure groups such as the Man and Boy Foundation’s influence on the initial classification of the isiXhosa initiation film, Inxeba (The Wound); religious groups like Answers in Genesis, the Angus Buchan followers, the Intelligent Design movement who are propagating creationism and leading campaigns against scientists and evolution as valid and accepted science; and anti-climate change groups clamouring for the “other side” when the scientific facts about climate change are undeniable.

  • Choose safe ideas. This is an extension of the safe facts rule. Moral and political values must be safe. Accordingly, the media do not allow anything that can give offense to an interest or pressure group to be published or broadcast. Even sources are carefully screened and so-called taboo lists of potentially “controversial” ideas are compiled and their views censored, suppressed or avoided (Karl Marx, Nelson Mandela, Breyten Breytenbach or any struggle leader during apartheid’s era of finding a Communist-under-every-bush, Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, lest the religiously sensitive and creationists be offended, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Salah Chaudhury, the Dalai Lama, Liu Xiaobo, Anna Politkoskaya, Said Abdelkader, Leyla Zana and many more).
  • Give both sides of the story, also known as the safety net rule. Davies writes that if things don’t work out and you are eventually forced to publish that which is not “safe”, you throw in quotes giving the other side to “balance” the story. The way journalists have, over the past two decades, tried to “balance” the view of climatologists and other scientists is an example.

These scientists have been urgently warning that climate change is endangering life on the planet, but journalists often “balance” their stories with the unscientific, ill-informed and politically driven opinions of denialists (also emphasised by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their must-read book, Merchants of Doubt).

This also is applicable to HIV/Aids denialists and dissidents such as Peter Duesberg, David Rasnick, Anita Allen, Thabo Mbeki, Matthias Rath and their supporters getting reams of publicity. (One needs only to be reminded of journalists such as John Lauritsen, Celia Farber, Katie Leishman – and specifically Chuck Ortleb. “The Aids crisis will be over in six months,” he declared in 1988 under the influence of Duesberg specifically.)

Creationists and the Intelligent Design Movement persistently insist on putting the “other side” in the debate on evolution, despite science having proven, with overwhelming evidence, that Darwin’s theory is valid science and the only way in which biology can be explained, to quote the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky.

  • Give them what they want. Stories that will entice more readers to click on them, get preference, Davies emphasises. That means that the principle of “if we can sell it, we’ll tell it” becomes paramount, putting editorial decision making under enormous pressure by consumers. This also means that in this commercial culture, the media consumer has more power than the journalist. Davies says the clearest impact of this will be the advancement of trivial news.
  • The prejudice against the truth in which context is totally ignored or avoided. Davies refers to the phenomenon in news presentation, the “natural selection of ignorance”, coined by the veteran BBC foreign correspondent Tom Fenton in his book Bad News.

It leads to the draining of detail from stories, in which complexity is removed and context eliminated. This prejudice against the truth is now built into the news factory’s approach to package stories in smaller and smaller units. It is, says Davies, like a body without limbs forced into a suitcase.

  • Give them what they would like to believe. This rule is similar to rule six, that those ideas and facts are selected which are subject to commercial interests. Davies calls this a highly destructive strategy. Other studies, besides the Cardiff one, have found that this strategy seriously affects the credibility of newspapers and other media. Should readers, listeners and viewers get what they want, concerned editors ask.

The mass communication researcher, Neil Postman of New York, called this the syndrome of “amusing ourselves to death” that has taken over the media approach to news. Difficult-to-understand stories are often avoided, with science reporting the most seriously harmed by this approach of dumbing down and superficiality.

  • Follow the route of moral panic. This usually only happens during perceived crises, such as the death of important persons (“The nation mourns; everyone must mourn. That is the story.”) Davies says this leads to shocking lies (in today’s media landscape, “untruths” will also fit), with the facts forced to align with the emotions. He mentions the death of Princess Diana, the Queen Mother and Pope John Paul II as examples.

This rule led to less aggression, but even more fiction, with the death of the pope in April 2005, writes Davies. The media presented as facts, without any questioning and critical awareness, the things in which Christians believe. ‘SAFE IN HEAVEN’, the Mail on Sunday declared on its front page. This phenomenon is widespread, also in South Africa, and in total contradiction of the lack of evidence for belief systems portrayed as facts.

  • The Ninja Turtle-syndrome. These are stories published and reported on widely elsewhere in the media, even if there is no merit in the stories’ newsworthiness. In the late eighties – and even recently when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were commercially revived – some parents tried to prevent their children from playing with these so-called violent toys and watching the movies. Only to find out that they do it under the influence of their friends at school.

The challenges for ethical journalism are becoming more difficult by the day. Countering fake news will demand and require more dedication from journalists to seek the truth and to report on it as accurately as possible, simultaneously minimising harm, acting absolutely independently, and to be accountable when mistakes are made.

The fall of President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta saga will for many years be examples of excellent investigative journalism, despite efforts by Bell Pottinger and others to spread fake news, trying to counter the discoveries by journalists. The rise of fake news has indeed reconfirmed the need for all journalists to again revisit and take to heart the warnings uttered by Davies a decade ago.

Amidst the rise of social media, his book has become a prophetic siren, guiding journalists through the treacherous Scylla and Charybdis passage towards credible and trustworthy news reporting.

George Claassen is News24’s public editor.