Fake or misleading news creep into B2B more than you want to admit

Fake news — that scourge of 2016’s election campaign, and beyond — isn’t seen by most business-to-business editors as much of a problem in their sphere. B2B readers, after all, are more sophisticated about their industries than are mainstream readers of political stories and should know a phony when they see one. Ask those same editors what does count as fakery in the B2B content they see, though, and you’re likely to get a long list of misrepresentations foisted on audiences every day.

“Maybe we’re not subject to the kind of quote-unquote fakery that involves people in the third world pumping falsities out there,” says Bridget Botelho, editorial director for the business applications media group of TechTarget and ASBPE ethics committee member. “But there are efforts all the time from advertisers to push out self-serving, false material, and that threatens to undermine what B2B readers are exposed to.” She adds that “luckily at TechTarget, the distinction is clear, and everything on the site is labeled if it is sponsored.”

But she and other editors see a variety of areas where B2B publications are increasingly being tempted to loosen their standards for vetting and fairly presenting material. And that laxity increases the chance that readers will be exposed to content that has been manufactured by the companies being covered in the news or by those who buy ads.

A partial list of concerns facing B2B today

  • The tendency of publications to make sponsored “native advertising” look more and more like fully-reported editorial material.
  • A willingness to run biased event or conference coverage that reflects hidden corporate subsidization of a reporter’s coverage costs.
  • The rise of company-sponsored research masquerading as “academic studies,” which really are designed to push a product.
  • A temptation of some reporters to rely more on unnamed or poorly identified sources for stories — sources who may in fact be publicists trying to turn the article into a bought-and-paid-for point of view.
  • Careless management by B2B journalists of social media connections, which can expose trade publications to “reposting” false information online — whether by accident or because the phony internet story has been presented as true by a source.

That last area of falsity particularly worries Harry McCracken, a long-time B2B editor now at Fast Company. Increasingly, there’s “the possibility of stuff that’s false seeping onto our site or at least onto my Twitter feed,” he says.

The reasons why editors are more exposed to false information online, according to McCracken: “there’s less fact-checking going on out there, and you can’t tell from the outside how well something has been fact-checked.” Also, “even at media outlets that are committed to quality, we’re all working at a faster pace and in a more unfiltered manner.” That, says McCracken, “means there are fewer protective layers of quality control that might prevent you from repeating someone else’s inaccuracies.”

A rise in dubious research

Julia Homer, the former long-time editor of CFO Magazine, has particularly noted the rise of suspicious reports being circulated as academic studies, citing an organization that is presumed to be free of political leanings or ties to corporate sponsors. “Writers should always be skeptical of research reports,” and anything titled “thought leadership,” she says.

In one case, when Homer researched the background of a survey presented as independent, she found that “survey respondents answered ‘No’ to a key question when the sponsor wanted a ‘Yes,’ so the question was dropped completely” from the final report.

Yet under the pressure of time and financial resources, editors often use such material on the basis of how independent it appears to be. Weaker fact-checking systems also let publications miss cases in which sources quoted in a story actually are pushing a promotional agenda that should be included as background for the quoted material. And, of course, editorial eyes are always needed to search for native advertising, paid for by sponsors who constantly try to have their own promotional material presented in ways that make it look like the publication’s own articles.

Homer wrote an article for ASBPE Ethics News Updates in 2015 that noted the weakening of what once were stringent B2B fact-checking systems designed to catch such flaws in academic reports and challenged the claims of story sources in general.

“It comes up all the time when I’m editing a story that includes a report from some big [research] firm,” says Bridget Botelho of TechTarget. “I click on the story and scour it to see if it’s been sponsored by a vendor. If it is, I don’t use it.”

The classic fake news prevalent during last year’s campaign was analyzed recently in an online panel presented by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), although little of that discussion dealt with threats within the business-to-business press. Panelist Craig Silverman, a media editor with BuzzFeed who also edited the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Centre, described those particular political frauds — famously involving Macedonian teenagers dreaming up scandalous internet stories about Hillary Clinton — as being economically, rather than politically, motivated. Usually, perpetrators were paid based on the number of clicks for their phony stories.

Take a cue from social media platforms

Some business editors noted during the SABEW panel the role of Facebook, Google and Twitter in the proliferation of fake stories, and how those companies are reforming their processes to deal with the politically-related content whose factuality is disputed. There’s been less attention, of course, to the involvement of those three platforms as they apply to business publishers. However, Facebook’s 10 Tips to Spot False News are useful.

Other editors aired their concerns that their own articles may be criticized as “fake news,” as the new President and his administration have labeled some stories by mainstream publications.

Even if political fake news is unlike the kinds of misrepresentations Botelho sees in B2B, she knows that business journalism also is subject to being tarred by the rise of news falsehoods around us. “Mistrust of the media in general is so high,” she says, “that we have to all be extra diligent in maintaining journalism standards.”

Get ahead of the game by using the tips offered in the related ASBPE Ethics Update article: “12 ways to keep your publication trustworthy.

Roy Harris, a former ASBPE national president, was a Wall Street Journal reporter and editor for 23 years and served as a senior editor of CFO Magazine for 13. Before retiring, he was founding editorial director of IDG’s CFOworld.com. He contributes articles to Poynter.org about the Pulitzer Prizes, the subject of his book “Pulitzer’s Gold.”

Roy Harris

Roy Harris is a semi-retired newspaper and magazine journalist who continues to write for Poynter.org, and to write freelance. Previously he was a reporter and deputy bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal from 1971 to 1995; senior editor at The Economist Group’s CFO Magazine from 1996 to 2009; and editor of IDG’s CFOworld.com from 2010 to 2016. He is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” published by Columbia U. Press in 2015.

A longtime ASBPE member and former president of the ASBPE National Board of Directors, he helped found the ASBPE Educational Foundation, as well as the Stephen Barr Award, ASBPE’s top feature-writing prize. Harris was an ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award honoree in 2016.

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