When President Trump took the podium in the White House earlier this month to brief the American people on the “incredible progress’ he had made in his first four weeks in office, no one expected him to launch a blistering attack on the media as well. But this is exactly what he did. The press have become dishonest, he alleged. Fake news has become their stock in trade.
Everybody is talking about fake news these days. It is the phrase on everybody’s lips. Ironically, though, it is often used in reference to the petulant president himself. It was Trump, after all, who said during the American election campaign that three million votes had been cast fraudulently. A classic piece of fake news that had no backing in the facts.
But Trump is not the only culprit. Over on this side of the Atlantic, Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union became a carnival of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ as the right-wing media tried to prove that EU membership had resulted in uncontrolled immigration. In one scurrilous example, The Daily Mail asserted that its front-page picture of desperate-looking people in the back of a lorry was a picture of migrants from Europe, when in fact they were stowaways from Iraq and Kuwait. Meanwhile, online news amalgamator Breitbart ran a story on a migrant mob trying to destroy a church in Germany. It was all based on nothing more than a firecracker being thrown at a church gate, but it quickly went viral.
So, we are beginning to live in an age, it seems, when facts are not allowed to get in the way of what we feel to be true. It’s all a far cry from the old adage expounded by British journalist C.P. Scott (1846-1932) that “facts are sacred”.
Whatever Mr Trump thinks, this is a maxim closely followed by mainstream news organisations such as the BBC. One of the British broadcaster’s core editorial values is accuracy. Its editorial guidelines clearly state that all stories written by journalists should be based on sound evidence and a range of viewpoints.
Of course, the traditional media have always faced allegations of bias, and it is true that journalists often choose an ‘angle’ from which they approach their story. But this is because they have to. A real life event is complicated and multi-faceted – a bit like a diamond with its many sides and faces. It is impossible to look at all these facets all at once. The angle is the part of the story the reporter chooses to hold up to the light at any one time.
Nevertheless, this should not detract in the end from the impartiality that the journalist must employ in the final delivery of his or her story. Impartiality is another BBC value, and one that will be discussed in OISE’s Journalism and Digital Media course this July. The course is one of the subjects being offered in our Oxford College Experience for Teenagers.
Simon Wilcox is a tutor at OISE with a background in the media. Holding a Postgraduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism, Simon has reported for the BBC in England and a major broadcaster in Singapore. He has also worked for newspapers and magazines, and as a website editor for a London-based NGO.