In this second episode on fake news, What happens next? host, Dr Susan Carland, finds out what researchers and experts are doing to tackle fake news and misinformation campaigns and help get clear, accurate messages to the public.
Susan Carland: Welcome back to what happens next. This time we're looking at how we can counter misinformation campaigns and fake news. We'll hear from experts exploring what we could do differently to improve the quality of information and media. Dr. David Holmes specialises in a different type of communication, using research and evidence to identify where and how to get information to large audiences. Margaret Simon is one of the nation's most respected reporters, commentators and educators on the state of the media and politics. She was the founding chair of the P IJ I and is a current board member.
The Public Interest Journalism Initiative is on a mission to save democracy from the decline it faces at the hands of reducing news budgets and increasingly concentrated media ownership.
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, we've had to adapt and do a number of these interviews by phone. So while occasionally the audio isn't as great as always, we promise you the content is.
Joining us is renowned reporter and public interest journalism advocate Margaret Simons.
Margaret Simons: I'm Margaret Simons, I'm a journalist and author, journalism academic and a board member of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative,
SC: Margaret Simons, thank you for Joining us. What is public interest journalism as distinct from regular journalism?
MS: Well I guess the best way of describing it is that it is Journalism which is democratically important. Journalism has a number of functions, obviously, including entertainment, but you don't normally include celebrity gossip and light entertainment and where to get the best latte under public interest journalism. But you would obviously include investigative journalism, but also the type of journalism we’ve seen through the Coronavirus crisis, informing people about what the situation is, what the various responses to that situation are, how the government is performing and how to wash your hands properly. That's important. Investigative journalism, which reveals new things, but also things like court reporting, reporting public meetings, reporting public debate or when there's a crisis such as the bushfires, being there on the ground so that we can know what's happening to our fellow citizens and what the implications are.
SC: So what happens to a society without public interest journalism?
MS: Well, it sounds very basic, and in a sense it is, but without information, we don't know ourselves - we aren't really a society. If I can draw an analogy, before the invention of the printing press - so we're going back into the sort of 13 and 1400s there - democracy, if you think about it, wasn't really possible. Even the idea off the public wasn't really possible because the very word public and public interest arises from the notion that you can have people who don't necessarily know each other in a direct sense, but who are connected and who share common interest and it's really only possible to develop that sense with a communications medium, which could span physical distance, and that was, of course, in those days, the printing press, which changed everything when you think about it. But among other things, many other things, helped to make democratic forms of government possible.
SC: Do you think public interest journalism can act as something of an antidote to fake news?
MS: Yes. I think it is really the only antidote. We need sources of information on which we can rely. And I think the era of fake news draws closer attention to what it is that good journalists do. Now, you know, I'm not going to defend everything any journalist ever did, and I’ve been very critical of some of my colleagues and not made friends by doing that, but we shouldn't lose sight of what good journalism is. Good journalism is information which, as far as is possible within the timeframe, has been checked. Verified facts, journalists out there talking to people, observing things and reporting on what they have seen. That is absolutely the antidote to fake news.
SC: What do you think of some of the positive impacts of having investigative reporting like public interest journalism thrive and reach more people through new channels like podcasts, for example.
MS: Well, we've seen very real demonstrations of that as the world has changed around us. People have turned back to reliable sources of information. One of ones I’ve been looking at in particular is the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan who has been putting out a 10 minutes a day podcast on the coronavirus and the latest research. And it is one of the most reliable sources of information at a time and a lot of people panicking and when there's a lot of false information around. Now, without the work of journalists, we wouldn't know what was happening elsewhere in the nation, elsewhere in the world, we wouldn't be able to get the information to assess whether the government's response is or is not adequate. And information is still scanty. This is a developing crisis. But imagine what it would be like if you could not find any information about what was going on? The reality is in this sort of situation that would cost lives.
SC: Do you think the Australian public is generally pretty well informed or no?
MS: It’s hard to generalise on this. In some ways, people are better informed than ever. They certainly get their information more quickly. But of course, it's coming through a mix of sources and not all those sources are disinterested or reliable.
SC: Can you give us any examples of places where journalism is going well, where you think this is exactly what we need, this is exactly what society needs to be heading towards? New initiatives, new projects, new approaches that can give us a bit of hope for the way forward?
MS: Look it’s hard to do that at the moment, to be perfectly honest with you. And the reason is that across Western world, where we have a free media, generally speaking, journalism is in crisis. And that’s not because it isn’t still important, and it's also not because there's a reduced appetite for it. In fact, the appetite for news has never been higher. It’s because the business model, which supported most journalism is broken. So traditionally - I started my career at the Melbourne Age, for example - my salary was effectively paid by pages and pages of classified advertisements that used to appear in the back of the newspaper. And all those classifieds have now disappeared on to online forums and more recently than that, this is really the story of the last five years, most of the display advertising has also disappeared and now appears in online platforms, Google Search, so the advertising revenue has disappeared, and that used to be 80% of the revenue of most newspapers roughly speaking. So that has been devastating.
There are some signs of hope within that, you can see a few quality outlets, The New York Times is the best known example, which have been able to claw back a lot of that revenue through subscriptions, getting people to pay to access the news and content online.
Also the Guardian, both the British Guardian and our local outcrop of it here in Australia, have actually made a direct appeal to their readers for their journalism and that has been astonishingly successful, and again The Guardian's turned round from being in deficit to surplus purely on that basis.
So you know, there are signs of hope. There is no evidence at all of declining appetite for public interest journalism, in fact, as I said earlier, there's never been so much appetite for it. And I think that's why you're seeing models like The New York Times and The Guardian succeeding because people are wanting reliable information more than ever before. That problem is the business model isn't there to support it for most publications.
SC: Margaret Simons, thank you for joining us. Let's hear from Dr David Holmes, who finds new ways to get accurate information to the right. Audiences we’re in an attention economy, and David and his team go where the attention is. He says The best approach has three key attributes - large audiences, clear messages, repeated often
David Holmes: I'm David Holmes and I'm the director of the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, which researches ways of building climate literacy in Australia for a broad range of audiences.
SC: David Holmes, thank you so much for joining us today. How bad is fake news right now?
DH: Well, I think you need to distinguish between fake news and disinformation. And I think, you know, fake news can be a term that's used to attack traditional media, which is usually much more trustworthy than social media. But not always. There have been recent problems with coverage of bushfires over summer in Australia, for example, coming from legacy media. But I think, relatively, on social media there have been a lot more problems in terms of even organised campaigns and bots and so forth putting out a great deal of misinformation, including that arson was the cause of the fires over summer. Or it was about the lack of fuel reduction rather than climate change, which attribution studies have shown really amplified the likelihood of the fires happening on the scale that they did.
Our studies at the climate change communication research hub on people's attitudes to climate change show that, in fact, there are at least five ‘Australia's’ to do with climate change. You've got your alarmed, your concerned, your uncertain, your cautious and your dismissive. And all of those groups tend to be in their own filter bubble. Social media actually reproduces that division rather than helps with going to really what are the expert sources and trusted sources that people can have a consensus view on a particular scientific set of facts. Because some aspects of news, they don't turn on opinion, they actually turn on science such as medical science, that we need to understand the coronavirus or climate science that you need to understand climate change with
SC: How bad things could get if it's left unchecked.
I think the more serious and issue is, the more consumers will turn to trusted sources. Particularly when it's a case of life and death, I mean, do you want to get Coronavirus? Well, no. No one really wants to get Coronavirus after reading what actually happens, like factual information about the number of deaths overseas and the way it affects the human body. So I think there's a kind of law of equilibration where the more serious an issue is, the more people will turn to trusted sources. And we're seeing that with the ABC over the Coronavirus. And we also saw that with the bushfires that when people realised there was misinformation being distributed via social media, they were looking to more and more trusted sources.
SC: You work for the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub. Tell us abnout that. First of all, what is that?
DH: The Climate Change Communication Research Hub researches the best ways to communicate climate change to a broad public. And in order to do that, we researched a number of things, one is the audience and what's called the attention economy. We researched factual information. So we get information that's brokered from actual climate scientists who, of course, have a consensus view over anthropogenic climate change or human caused climate change. And we also look at who are the most trusted sources to deliver this information because it's not necessarily always the climate scientists themselves. What we found was that weather presenters are one of the most trusted sources, so we have partnered with them to present climate information. Of course, many weather presenters are meteorologists as well, so they have this dual identity of being public identities as well as trained meteorologists. So we found that that was a very effective way to communicate factual information that is sort of also repeated often, but with a whole rage of different kinds of facts that, when you add them up, become multiple lines of evidence that show trends in very clear ways. Weather presenters by definition are kind of local, in other words, they present to a city market or it could even be a regional market. The fact of them being local is itself a source of trust, whereas an interesting thing about climate information is that the more global facts that you give people the less connected people are to those facts.
SC: Was it hard to get any of those weather presenters on board?
DH: No. So, what we did was we surveyed all of the weather presenters in Australia, and there are only 75 of them, and we asked them about their willingness to present climate information in their weather bulletin and we found that 91% of them were comfortable with presenting climate information to audiences. And so then we also surveyed the audiences of those same weather presenters, and we found with the audiences 74% of those audiences were interested in hearing about local climate statistics over a 30 to 50 year time scale and because there was an obvious audience appetite, this was very influential in also then news directors coming on board. So really that meant we could pilot with a couple of presenters, which was Jane Bunn at Channel 7 in Melbourne and Paul Higgins at ABC. And they kind of pioneered this new change-up to how the weather is done. And after that happened, we simply were able to just point to how they had done it in Melbourne to other presenters around Australia, and now we have 14 weather presenters around Australia who reach a third of Australia's television audience.
SC: It's very clever, you know, When I think about the way we communicate about climate change, often it is that sort of scare tactics, Everything's ‘we're all gonna die any minute, and everything's gonna be hot and we've gone past a million don't turn back, you can't turn back now’ points. Was it hard for you to feel that something more gentle, I guess, or less in-your-face could be effective?
DH: We had done research showing that overseas in the United States, a method known as non persuasive communication, was very successful. What non persuasive communication does is that it really cuts across those five Australians that I was talking about before because people are very familiar with weather presenters. They tend to be anchor people who are there on your television screen when you come home at a certain time of the day, they are highly trusted, they already have people's attention. Non persuasive communication really contrasts with the kind of communication and advocacy that NGOs do, which is like a form of shouting, really, whereby it's about getting attention and sort of waving a flag and saying, ‘listen to what we have to say’ whether it's an alarmed message or a concerned message and our audiences tend to pigeonhole that as ‘well, of course, they will say that because they're an NGO and that's a sort of line that they push’. But in a way, what you're doing there is actually entrenching those five Australians.So the alarmed might be impressed, the concerned might be impressed. The dismissive really gets their backs up and the cautious and uncertain - you may lose those groups,
So what you need is a message that works with all five groups and not just preaching to the converted in a way. So non persuasive communication does that, but it only works if you just present factual information.
SC: Do you think there are other things beyond climate change that this similar approach could work for? Other social issues or areas where we need to create a bit of change?
DH: Yeah, I think, really any area where there is misinformation and it is clear that that misinformation needs to be corrected, I think, going back to the experts, finding trusted sources to communicate what they have to say, which may not necessarily be those experts themselves and repeating those messages often as well. So one area could be health, with Coronavirus. You can see at the moment there is much misinformation around, some of which even comes from leaders of very large nations, which needs to be corrected. And I think any program that's able to broker the expertise and have that come from trusted sources is generally in the public interest.
SC: Who does your research tell you is the most trusted person in Australia?
DH: Yeah, well, good question. I mean, I don't think there is such a thing as a trusted source who can handle all issues that audiences would be satisfied with. But certainly our research on trusted sources on climate change shows that climate scientists are still the most trusted source, thankfully, because they are the scientists, after all. But interestingly, they’re closely followed by farmers, then firefighters and then weather presenters. So the reason we went with weather presenters in our programs, of course, is because weather presenters are also skilled communicators and they have access to very large audiences. But going back to farmers and firefighters, what's interesting about those people is that they are sort of regarded by the public as at the front line of climate change. You've got farmers who have to figure out how to grow our food in times of extreme weather and drought. You've got firefighters actually having to put out massive fire storms as we saw last summer, and people feel this real empathy with them that they actually understand climate change because they have to live with it in their job. We also found in our research that the least trusted group on climate change were politicians, and this was paradoxical because we also, at the same time, found that politicians tended to get more airtime than anyone else on climate change. So this can also be a real turn off, where it's kind of like it can sort of be associated with fake news in the sense that politicians, you know, there’s this so-called debate about something that's actually based on science, where politicians just seem to be saying whatever is in their interest in this debate. And so there's a kind of hollowing out of values to do with that.
Like, who do you believe with the politicians? And seriously, some audiences, when you ask them ‘What is climate change?’, it's like, ‘Well, isn't that what politicians talk about?’ And it becomes divorced from the actual physics that it's something actually happening outside, and it's happening right now. It's equated as just some debate that happens in a Parliament. You know, if you were running a campaign about climate change, I recommend to people you really need to enlist a farmer or a firefighter or a climate scientist to do your messaging for you rather than a politician.
SC: Well, bad news for politicians, but good news for farmers. Maybe we should talk to them next! Dr David Holmes. This has been incredibly interesting. Thank you so much for your time.
Great to hear those insights from Margaret Simons and David Holmes. In the next episode we’ll round up all the experts’ best tips for navigating through the online mire to identify accurate information from reputable sources. Thanks to our guests today, Margaret Simons and David Holmes. That's it for this episode. More information on what we discussed today can be found in the show notes. I'll catch you next time on what happens next.
More about this episode:
Susan talks to Dr David Holmes, Director of the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, who specialises in a different type of communication, using research and evidence to strategically send critical messages. The aim is to draw attention to climate change, to help people better understand the science, and therefore the impacts. The Hub works closely with weather presenters and media outlets to help ensure information they provide on weather and climate is scientifically accurate, up to date, and easy for the average person to understand and absorb.
The Public Interest Journalism Initiative is on a mission to save democracy from the decline it faces at the hands of reducing news budgets and increasingly concentrated media ownership. Margaret Simons is one of the nation's most respected reporters, commentators and educators on the state of the media and politics. Susan Carland asks Margaret can public interest journalism save democracy?
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