Fake news is not a new phenomenon but its current scope is alarming. According to the latest 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, 63 percent of the U.S. general population finds it difficult to distinguish between what is real news and what is fake.
Dr Jon White’s new series on the challenges of disinformation faced by public relations and the role the profession should play is a timely initiative. He places the role of education at the forefront of the fight to counter disinformation: “There is an often discussed need to increase media literacy, to aid in understanding the techniques used to collect and present information through the media.”
We need to understand that news is not a mere list of facts. It is much more important than that. News is about representations of the world. News is about ideologies and power. As PR professionals and content creators, it is our responsibility to tackle the spreading of false information by strengthening the relationships we develop with our stakeholders.
I agree that awareness needs to be built around how the media can be controlled. Namely through the concentration and the building of mass media firms in the hands of a few, through advertisement, through biased sources of information and also through ‘flak’ (negative reactions to media news) as a means of self-restraint.
More importantly, I think that our definition of audiences will help restore the integrity of information. We need to see our publics as partners.
Audiences need to be contextualised and conceptualised. In other words, we need to be able to wonder what the nature of their media environment is and understand if we are dealing with informed citizens or not.
There is a difference between seeing audiences as commodities or as a public.
On the one hand, audiences deemed as commodities are surveyed and measured, anywhere and at anytime. The audiences’ preferences for the media are determined by estimates of media expose to the media. These audiences are seen to be stable, identifiable, but also intruded upon.
On the other hand, audiences as a public represent cultural democracy with diverse audiences represented by virtue of citizenship. Their preferences are elaborated upon by the audiences themselves. They are mobile, fractionated, anonymous, liberated and expressive.
The distinction between those two definitions are blurrier in reality, but as PR practitioners our work should revolve around the public approach.
It is no longer true that audiences are passive, indoctrinated and incapable of meaning. Messages are not passively received. Audiences are capable of resisting media message and assessing them critically. Therefore, working hand-in-hand with our them has become essential.
As professional communicators, we help create meaning and participate in certain representations of the world. Our work must empower audiences and build relationships that enable our publics to participate in the creation of meaning.
Audiences as meaning creators are strategic allies in the fake news battle. And education and partnership are our greatest weapons.