Don’t give your readers a reason to yell, ‘fake news.’ Stay ahead of the game.
By Warren Hersch
Board Member, Ethics Committee, ASBPE
Principal, Editorial & Design Services,
Board Member, Ethics Committee Chair, ASBPE.
Fake news — information published to mislead readers, often to achieve political or financial objectives —isn’t just the bane of the consumer press.
Propaganda and falsehoods that pass as real news can penetrate business and trade publications, a sector some believe is impervious to the trend.
One place we typically see this is in information from purportedly independent sources, but which are funded by organizations with ulterior motives.
For example, corporate-sponsored studies that appear to identify issues and trends in an objective fashion may intentionally skew findings to advance their business aims, such as the promotion of particular products and services. Frequently, too, the purpose is to counter the results of other research that might undermine confidence in the company’s products.
Case in point: wireless industry research. In the book “Overpowered: What Science Tells Us about the Dangers of Cellphones and other WiFi-Era Devices,” former Columbia University Professor Martin Blank, Ph.D. writes how wireless device makers have (following “Big Tobacco” companies’ playbook) funded numerous studies with the goal of “manufacturing doubt” about the potentially harmful health effects of their products.
Result: Reports like the “Interphone Study,” a 12-year, industry-backed study that included hundreds of thousands of participants across 13 European countries and cost tens of millions of dollars, found no link between regular cell phone usage and increased risk of brain tumors. But, as Professor Blank emphasized in his book, in the validation conclusion of the study —which ended in 2012 — researchers admitted “bias and error prevent a causal interpretation.”
Also, B2B writers and editors too often buy into research with methodological flaws, in part because of snug ties with the companies they report on or the need for access to industry players; in other cases, it can be because of ad revenue considerations or lack of knowledge on the part of reporters and editors about research design best practices.
See companion article in this issue: “Fake or misleading news creep into B2B more than you want to admit.”
In a 2011 study about consumer opinion on bias and use of sources by U.K. business journalists, Steve Schifferes, the Marjorie Deane Professor of Financial Journalism, City University, reported that nearly half the public believed that business journalists are too close to their sources and “are not independent enough of the businesses they cover.”*
In B2B publishing, the closeness of editorial staff to their market could breed untrustworthiness given the current publishing environment. Don’t unwittingly damage your B2B brand — and maybe, too, your professional reputation by giving your readers (or advertisers) a reason to say B2B media is the “enemy of the people.”
To help you flag untruths, fabrications and financially tainted data, here are 12 practices to follow. Collectively, they’ll help ensure your publication continues to be perceived as accurate, credible, transparent and trustworthy.
1) Establish a rigorous editing process
“This is a time when we can contrast for the public how carefully we approach what we do,” writes Tim Gallagher in Editor & Publisher. “The fact checking. The verification. The putting your sources’ words up against the public record. The calls to a source to explain what they meant, or to walk you through a complex government process because it’s your job to make sure it passes the smell test.”
Otherwise commendable news and feature articles can draw howls from readers when writers and editors don’t have standards or a process in place to ensure that coverage is accurate, well reported and free of glaring biases or omissions. As stated in rule number one, document your process and post it on your website.
If, despite your best efforts, mistakes are made or information is inaccurately reported, acknowledge the errors and fix them. When readers see that you’re proactive about addressing incorrect information, trust in the reporting — and the brand — will grow.
For a way to create a fact-checking verification process, see chapter 9 in the Verification Handbook. Chapter 10 of the handbook lists more than 40 online fact-checking tools.
2) Explain how the reporting was done
Being transparent about the sources, methods and tools that underpin your reporting enhances trustworthiness, according to a Nieman Reports article. Disclosure can be as simple as posting a FAQ about your general process or adding a sidebar explaining your reporting steps for a particularly noteworthy story. You’d include:
- The editorial philosophy, principles, vision, best practices and code of ethical conduct guiding the publication;
- Steps in the reporting process, from the initial editorial meeting to final editing and fact-checking;
- Databases, organizations or other resources regularly consulted in the course of research; and
- Insights into how editorial decisions are made.
The last is especially important with respect to special features, supplements or deeply rooted work. For example:
- Why were certain resources or people consulted but not others?
- What techniques or tools did journalists use to advance the reporting, interpret findings or draw conclusions?
- Which benchmarks or guidelines did editors use in deciding whether copy made the cut (or didn’t) for publication?
- Tell the story about how you got the story.
After all, we journalists expect others to be open about their operations. Be accountable with your readers about your own work. We need to institutionalize transparency ourselves.
3) Verify and publish credentials
A writer’s, editor’s or source’s advertised skills and accomplishments might be impressive on paper, but they may not hold up on close scrutiny. Hence the value of background checks on public databases and online tools that can confirm whether “experts” are, in fact, all they claim to be.
Provide your readers with the evidence of your writer’s or source’s claims of subject matter expertise. For example, people asserting they are financial planners should have verifiable degrees or certificates, such as a ChFC or CFP designation, attesting to their expertise.
If individuals’ academic backgrounds are at issue, use Google Scholar to confirm that they’ve actually written papers or undertaken research. Also helpful are links to articles indicating whether other authors determined that a contributor’s research findings or claims are believable. The higher the “cited by” number is, the greater the likelihood that an author is credible.
In a bio on your website, post your staffs’ (and your regular freelance writers’) experience in journalism and in your marketplace.
Scope out potential conflicts of interest among your staff, freelancers and sources. If a source is conveying information about stocks in which he or she may be invested, communicate that to the reader. Or better, don’t use that source.
Alternatively, if sources for a story are not cited by name, explain to readers the reasons for the lack of attribution. But before crediting information to anonymous sources, do your due diligence, indicates a January 2017 report of the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN).
Due diligence includes uncovering the reasons why a source has requested anonymity and determining whether the source’s information can be rendered more credible by verifying that source’s statements with another source.
4) Kick-start an editorial advisory board
By regularly bringing together staff editors and industry experts to examine the quality or direction of editorial, methods by which questionable information may slip into reporting can be identified and eliminated.
This may entail, for instance, distancing the publication from certain market research organizations or trade groups that hold themselves out as unbiased sources of industry data, but that generate studies or offer interviews with “experts” to share findings that are mostly self-serving.
In making this determination, the board might also insist that certain benchmarks be met. Examples: Research methodologies and metrics underpinning study findings must align with industry best practices (or, if falling short of such benchmarks, be disclosed to readers); and the research be independently funded, free of conflicts of interest.
Advisory board members can also act as peer reviewers of content to improve the accuracy and credibility of published pieces. They can be quoted experts or background sources of information in your articles. Hold roundtable discussions with your board and publish the discussion. They can even write for you or help find other experts to write for you.
Tout the expertise of your advisory board members by posting their background on your website and listing them in your print publication. Better, tell your readers exactly how you use them to ensure your content is authoritative and trustworthy.
5) Bring a critical eye to social media and websites
Many of the rumors and fabrications online surface via social media, an issue that Facebook is addressing by pinning a “disputed” tag on suspect news. For your purposes, flagging potentially false information is likely not sufficient.
The EJN recommends that you always investigate the origins of stories and images on social media. Verify if a story is original or rehashed; whether items tagged as news link to legitimate news sites; and whether content appearing elsewhere online lends credence to news published on the social media page in question.
Best practice is always to use the original source and ensure it and its information are reliable and valid; don’t cite the social media source (unless it truly is the original source).
However, just because a reputable publication posted or printed something doesn’t mean that publication did a reliable job of fact-checking, for example. If you reprint it or refer to it, caveat emptor.
Same is true for other websites. Make certain the site is regularly revised with confirmable content. Check out the site’s “About Us” page. Sites that don’t have one, or that are suspiciously thin on information, should send up a red flag. And can you easily find contact information?
Alarm bells should be ringing, also, where bizarre domain names are listed (e.g., “.com.co,”), which fake news sites often use to pass as real news counterparts.
Facebook’s 10 Tips to Spot False News are useful to anyone who wants to stop spreading incorrect information.
6) Tell readers where to get more information
Editorial will be more trustworthy if readers can review source content for themselves.
Provide links (online and in print) to the original source of news releases, videos, transcripts, reports, related research and websites. Especially online, make the text/context of your link language clear so the link does not appear to be an editorial endorsement.
7) Label copy appropriately
The much-vaunted wall between editorial and advertising is more permeable than ever. To lend credibility to their products, services or viewpoints, vendors and other stakeholders are increasingly turning to different forms of sponsored content, which resemble editorial, but is actually paid-for content.
Clearly identify sponsored content so readers don’t confuse it with editorial.
Similarly, articles presenting a point of view in editorial columns or blogs should be tagged as opinion pieces to distinguish them from other editorial. Analyses, which can blend attributes of straight news and opinion, should be labeled as such.
8) Build credibility through outreach
Get out of your office bubble. Your publication’s reputation for veracity and fairness can be built by connecting more with readers and other stakeholders at industry events and online forums.
Face-to-face events are particularly useful for generating trust as you learn more about your readers and they you. Offer to speak at conferences on industry topics but certainly on your editorial processes as well (e.g., how you determine what to publish, how you fact-check, what your ethics code is).
Visit readers at their offices to get the quality understanding you need. Hold focus group meetings or roundtable discussion events around the country to go deep into industry issues and the “how-to” and “why” information. Show you care about them. Discover their different world and industry views. Listen more.
Online, interact with industry players through Facebook Live or other video streaming services.
When handled properly, comment sections are a place where you can directly show your responsiveness to readers’ concerns, teach the journalism process and build trust.
The Engaging News Project, part of the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, shows how a reporter’s language in online comments helps get the job done. This Reynolds Journalism Institute series — “Trust us, you’re going to want to read this series about social media” — goes into more depth, including this list from the Trust Project, a program of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, of more than 30 ways to help generate trust.
9) Deliver solutions (service) journalism
When you provide readers with a way to make more money, to save money, to be more efficient, to produce a higher quality product, or to solve a problem, they will listen to you more and trust you more. After all, you’re helping readers, step-by-step, with their primary concerns.
These types of stories typically rank highest in value among readers. The simple formula: problem > solution > outcome > limitations.
10) Strive for balance (to a point)
In their efforts to achieve balanced and unbiased coverage, journalists tend to give equal weight to opposing points of view. That may be appropriate when the two sides of an argument are about equally matched in terms of backers or supporting data.
But if there’s a misalignment of the two — where the claims of one side, if not undeniably false, are demonstrably inferior to the assertions of the other — then two arguments need to be appropriately framed. Too often, critics say, alternative explanations given for a trend or phenomenon are lent more weight than merited in articles when there is broad consensus among experts behind a different, empirically based conclusion.
The key, then, is to provide context, context, context.
11) Vet the research before you publish it
Readers use the research you publish to help them make business decisions. But too much of it is generated with poor methodology, such as bad sampling and biased questions. Publishing bad data engenders distrust. Understand the statistical standards and quiz the researchers about how they conducted the study.
A strong case can be made to NOT publish information about any research that does NOT meet minimal methodological requirements. If you do publish the data, always explain fully the study’s methodology and limitations, which go beyond the popular degree of confidence measure. Make a statistician your friend.
The two articles below discuss the quantitative metrics that you minimally should carefully examine before publishing research data:
- Too many editors and writers publish the research that is just handed to them
- How the ethical editor and writer can meet the minimal research vetting standard
Other tips for covering research studies:
- Don’t ignore positive findings for the sake of negative ones.
- Understand what the metrics truly mean when interpreting data (e.g. correlation is not causation).
- Read the entire study to keep coverage in context (misleading information often is the result of improper emphasis; same is true for other types of reporting).
- Look for unclear and biased language in the questionnaire (could a question be interpreted in more than one way?).
- Examine the study’s sponsor and other funders for conflicts of interest.
- Institute “sanity checks,” tests to quickly determine whether a claim or the result of a calculation is rational and could be true.
12) Follow ASBPE’s ethics guide and best practices
Hold yourself to higher standards. Taken from The Gannett Co.’s Principles of Ethical Conduct, here are several ways editorial managers can reinforce the importance of ethical principles to staff:
- Ensure that sound hiring practices are followed to build a staff of ethical and responsible journalists. Such practices include making reference checks and conducting sufficient interviewing and testing to draw reasonable conclusions about the individual’s personal standards.
- Provide prospective hires with a copy of [your ethics code] and make acceptance of them a condition of employment.
- Require staff members at the time of hire and each year thereafter to sign a statement acknowledging that they have read [your code] and will raise any questions about them with their editors.
- Conduct staff training [about your code] at least annually.
- Communicate [the principles of your code] to the public periodically.
If your publication doesn’t have an ethics code (or if the one you have badly needs a revamp), you may adopt ASBPE’s comprehensive “B2B Journalist Ethics: An ASBPE Guide to Best Practices.”
As the ASBPE guide states in its intro, editors must “maintain editorial excellence and the trust of the communities they serve” by dedicating themselves to time-honored journalistic principles. Among them:
- An uncompromising commitment to accuracy, fairness and balance,
- Full attribution to sources,
- Clear separation of reporting from analysis and opinion, and of editorial from advertising content.
The document contains how-to and why information in eight sections:
- Conflicts of interest
- Standards of editorial operations
- Graphics and photography
- Digital publications
- Social media
- Sponsored issues, sections and supplements
- Conferences and contests
- Nonprofit/association publications
But do more than follow a code. Earn readers’ trust by posting the following sentence in your publications and on your website (and discuss it every chance you get): “Here is the code of ethics this news organization follows.”
Keep untruths at bay
Allowing falsehoods, fabrications and tainted data to compromise journalism, and the trust readers place in us, isn’t an option.
Be proactive to prevent trust issues by instituting guidelines, processes and editorial checks that (to borrow from ASBPE’s motto) foster B2B excellence and keep publications and professional reputations above reproach.
*“Trust-meltdown for business journalism” by Steve Schifferes, Marjorie Deane Professor of Financial Journalism, City University, London, in British Journalism Review, vol. 23 no. 2, June 2012. Poll used a representative sample of 2,000 U.K. adults on November 2-4, 2011, using an online panel. The margin of error was +/- 3 per cent.
Warren S. Hersch is a freelance business journalist and sits on the board of directors of the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). For three decades, he has covered insurance, financial services and information technology for various trade publications. He currently writes about news and trends impacting life insurance and annuity manufacturers for Life Annuity Specialist and about developments germane to life insurance and financial service professionals for ThinkAdvisor. From 2004 to 2017, Warren served as a senior editor for National Underwriter Life & Health and LifeHealthPro.
Robin Sherman provides freelance editorial and publication design services primarily for B2B publishers. He sits on the board of directors of ASBPE and is the interim chair of its ethics committee. Previously, Sherman was the corporate editorial director for a large B2B publisher with more than 30 titles. He has developed content and design for 40+ business and consumer publications. More recently, Sherman was the editor and designer of Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metal Fabricator and designer and layout editor of Seniors Housing Business.