Investigative journalism in the era of fake news

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In a recent panel at the Global Leadership Series, award-winning investigative journalists Professor Peter Greste and Marian Wilkinson, joined international journalist and academic Bruce Woolley to discuss the contemporary crisis of fake news.

Faith in journalism has been shaken recently by the rhetoric of 'fake news', the undermining of once-relied-upon media institutions, the proliferation of unreliable sources, the disregard for evidence and the denial of accountability.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon Woolley noted - though it has often been understood by different names. 

“We’ve always had fake news although we’ve known it as propaganda, misinformation or spin,” he said.

“Think of the Trojan Horse, think of the Normandy Invasion and how that was faked so the real intentions were disguised.

"One of the roles of journalism education is to teach journalists how to deal with spin and propaganda."

Wilkinson said that while 'fake news' was not a new phenomenon it had snowballed in recent years and represented a significant threat to credible journalism. 

“There is a battle over what is actually fake news and it has become a battle over media manipulation in the digital age," she said.

“We all know that propaganda and lies have been part of the political and media for centuries.

“But today propaganda and lies have been weaponised by the social media giants, fake news site can spread stories like wildfire so they enter the mainstream debate with increasing speed. By the end of the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook became the biggest gateway to fake news sites.

“Today journalism is facing an existential challenge.

“We are caught in a quagmire of claims and counter-claims about fake news and we need to draw clear lines between fake news and real journalism," Wilkinson said. 

Greste also added to the discussion of the persecution and criminalisation of journalism. Talking about his experiences as a foreign correspondent on the frontline, and the 400 days he spent in a Cairo jail after he was arrested on terrorism charges for reporting on the political crisis in Egypt. 

“The criminalisation of journalism, this is something I had a lot of time to think about while I was in Egypt, prison does that for you," he said. 

“I realised that what had happened to us, was that we were in prison, not for anything we had done, but for what we had come to represent. 

"The charges that we were facing were charges of terrorism – I was accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation… of broadcasting false news to undermine national security.

“I really struggled with this… to reconcile the gap between what we had actually been doing which was frankly pretty mundane journalism, covering the unfolding political crisis in Egypt, speaking to all parties to the dispute as we are supposed to… which meant speaking to the opposition,” Greste said.

You can listen to the full discussion via the podcast below. 

Listen to the full discussion below

When it comes to debating issues of great contemporary significance - whether carbon footprints or food supply, presidential campaigns or city planning, health policy or anti-terrorism - evidence has begun to count for less.  Facts, rational thought and expertise are losing out to emotions, tribalism and prejudices.

Why is this happening?  And why is it happening now?  Do facts still matter?  Is truth dead?

Listen to Professor Peter Greste, Marian Wilkinson and Bruce Woolley examine the very real threats to justice, democracy and progress in this post-truth era.

Help provide work experience and educational opportunities for aspiring young journalists.