ITN submission to Culture, Media and Sport Select committee inquiry on fake news

Read more about the DCMS ‘fake news’ enquiry

1.0 ITN welcomes the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee’s inquiry on the rise and impact of fake news. Accurate journalism and a responsible media is the cornerstone of any healthy democracy. The recent phenomenon of fake news strikes at the heart of the democratic process by damaging the public’s ability to differentiate between publications that have high editorial standards and invest in thorough and fact checked journalism and those which deliberately seek to mislead.

About ITN

2.0 ITN is the UK’s biggest independent producer of commercial broadcast news. We believe we are unique worldwide as a company that provides fully-formed and distinct news programming for all three Public Service Broadcasters – ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Our services reach more than eight million people every day with 43% of the British population consuming our news each and every week.

ITN also makes investigative and current affairs programming through our ITN Productions creative and commercial content division, such as Dispatches programmes for Channel 4 and political panel show The Agenda for ITV.

2.1 While our programmes reach a diverse cross-section of viewers, with different editorial styles and remits, all ITN journalism is guided by the principles of balance, accuracy and fairness. We rigorously apply the same journalistic standards across both our television and online output.

2.2 These high standards are recognised throughout the industry and recent accolades include an Oscar nomination for our documentary Watani: My Homeland in the Documentary Short Subject category charting the refugee journey of one Syrian family. In the last year alone our programmes have triumphed at the International Emmys, Baftas, Peabody, Grierson and Amnesty Awards. Most recently, ITN was awarded eight RTS Television Journalism awards this year including for Daily News Programme (Channel 4 News), Network Presenter (ITV News’ Tom Bradby),  and Home Current Affairs (Interview with a Murderer from ITN Productions).

2.3 ITN believes high quality, independent provision from multiple sources is essential to a pluralistic news environment in delivering choice and alternative viewpoints that form part of our democratic process, and this should be protected at all costs.

2.4 Beyond our core news contracts, ITN continues to diversify, particularly within ITN Productions. Best known for its current affairs and factual entertainment programming, the division boasts commissions from every major UK broadcaster as well as a number of series commissions in the US. In addition, ITN Productions also specialises in commercials, branded content and supplies digital news and entertainment content to major newspaper sites and news aggregators.

2.5 ITN has been involved from an early stage in the debate around fake news. In January this year we hosted a debate in partnership with the Edinburgh International TV Festival chaired by Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow.[i] Panellists included CNN media expert Brian Stelter, Facebook’s Director of Media Partnerships EMEA Patrick Walker and the Political Editor of Buzzfeed UK Jim Waterson.[ii] The discussion, which was also transmitted by Facebook live, covered the different forms of fake news and the way it is evolving as well as the role of Facebook in tackling the issue. The debate was viewed 100,000 times on the Channel 4 News Facebook page.

Summary of response:

2.6 Our core concerns related to fake news can be summarised as follows:

  1. Originators of content should receive their fair share of advertising revenue from social media platforms to continue to be able to invest in quality journalism
  2. Transparency around the algorithms that prioritise “news” stories on social media platforms is needed to ensure viral content from dubious sites is not presented as news
  3. Advertising revenue sustains and incentivises fake news sites to create more content – greater transparency around programmatic advertising is needed along with action from platforms to block this
  4. The majority of audiences consuming content online do not differentiate between or recognise that various news sources will apply different editorial standards: this means that mainstream media is losing its credibility in the public consciousness as a source of impartial and accurate journalism
  5. Platforms that publish ‘news’ sources indiscriminately need to take responsibility for the impact of this on the news ecosystem and work quickly to create safeguards
  6. Deliberately planted false stories which gain momentum amongst specific audiences have potential to effect the outcome of democratic processes such as elections and referendums
  7. The term fake news has been consistently misappropriated by those who decry accurate but negative coverage as “fake news” – this has undermined its usage when applied accurately to coverage that is intentionally false
  8. Echo chambers created by social media platforms conflate hyperpartisan coverage and false stories with mainstream media coverage which reinforces existing biases among communities
  9. Now more than at any other time the need for investment in quality journalism and fact checking is paramount, for both responsible platforms and responsible publishers

Below is ITN’s response to the specific questions posed by the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee which lay out our concerns in greater detail.

  • What is ‘fake news’? Where does biased but legitimate commentary shade into propaganda and lies?

3.0 Since November 2016 fake news has become a phenomenon that dominates discussion within the media industry around the world. It is a term that is used flexibly and in different contexts by the entire media spectrum, politicians and the general public. Crucially, this is not simply an inward facing issue for media experts – it has a very real impact upon the general public’s ability to trust the information that it both seeks out and also is presented with by sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Google.

3.1 There is no doubt that fake news (or propaganda as it might be termed in the past) has always existed but online platforms have created a means of disseminating that information at a speed that we have never seen before. The democratisation of information online – which has caused many to describe this as the Golden Age of Journalism – has also led to a situation where credible impartial news sources are placed on a par with hoax websites and hyperpartisan websites claiming opinion as fact.

3.2 In the past year – new websites have sprung up posting unverified and untrue information, which has been widely shared on social media. It falls into several different types.

  • Totally fake news sites – with completely false stories– eg “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump” – which received over 1,000,000 engagements on social media.
  • Hyperpartisan sites that present comment as fact or use selective facts while ignoring other salient ones
  • Sites which mix fact and fiction – without traditional editorial standards they publish some true stories and some fake stories which get widely shared. This may include misappropriation of content by third parties, which may distort the material to suit their political agendas

3.4 While the above encapsulates what ITN recognises as fake news the definition of the term is shifting and has now arguably been misappropriated to become a catch-all phrase for coverage you disagree with. This term has been quite regularly applied by President Trump to mainstream media for articles that do adhere to journalistic standards and ethics – and which mainstream media would strongly contest is “proper” journalism. This sets a precedent for other organisations and governments to dismiss critical stories as fake. Meanwhile, the Chinese government recently described reports of torture from a human rights activist as “fake news”.[iii] This demonstrates how the terms has become a method or strategy enabling those held to account not to engage with genuine news reports and instead dismissing media who question them by labelling their reports as “fake”.

3.5 The consistent misuse of the term fake news in turn dilutes and undermines the label when it is accurately applied to articles that publish falsehoods. It could be argued that a new term or label needs to be found – although this too risks misappropriation.

3.6 It is important to note that all views are not equally valid. If views are not backed by facts or rational reasoning, or cause offence, or spread hatred then they are not as valid as those reasonably held and which do no deliberate harm to people. Former US President Obama has drawn attention to the problem – saying that “if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda – then we have problems.” Hyperpartisan sites which claim to be credible news sources are particularly difficult because they present comment pieces as fact.

3.7 The role of a responsible and stable media industry is increasingly vital in order to counteract the narrative of often highly personal and sensationalist false stories that seem to characterise the majority of fake news. Now more than ever high journalistic standards and editorial practises, combined with sustained investment to provide this, are integral to ensuring that mainstream media, particularly PSB media, can continue to offer a trusted product that audiences can rely on.

Responses to fake news from ITN editors:

4.0 Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear says: “Fake news is false information deliberately portrayed as fact for the purposes of distorting the truth in favour of one group over another. Any argument in journalism has to be backed up by facts. Facts are incontrovertible, and cannot be alternative, or debatable.

4.1 “The continuing debate on facts and fake news is undermining the public’s trust in journalism, but it is also providing a golden opportunity to examine, re-evaluate and appreciate all journalism, particularly broadcast journalism in this country. The blend of news and current affairs in this country, regulated by OFCOM, is unparalleled in its quality.”

4.2 ITV News editor Geoff Hill says: “The challenges posed by “fake news” underline the importance of the role of impartial news organisations to continue to hold those in power to account and to do so with credibility and authority. ITV News journalists build their reports firmly entrenched with facts and accuracy and these are essential when building trust with the audience. Fake news hasn’t changed the way we approach storytelling, it will instead serve as a reminder of the importance of our storytelling.”

4.3 5 News editor Rachel Corp says: “The fact that trusted social media platforms present accredited journalism and official news organisations’ stories alongside totally unsubstantiated tales from dubious sites means online audiences now need to be better informed on which sources they can trust – the platform alone is not enough of a guide. For 5 News the challenge is to stand out against the fake news and make sure our brands are strong enough to signpost people towards our journalism. ”

  • What impact has fake news on public understanding of the world, and also on the public response to traditional journalism? If all views are equally valid, does objectivity and balance lose all value?

5.0 Misleading or fake stories can have significant impact as these stories get very widely viewed through shares on social media. They appeal to people’s emotions, and as a result they get huge traction online. When they endorse a community’s existing point of view these stories quickly gain credibility and are spread widely throughout an audience that is already sympathetic to that view.

5.1 Social media algorithms mean that an individual’s previous online behaviour and inherent biases create an echo chamber of news where only stories reflecting one side of the debate are read and digested.  This applies to both sides of the political spectrum. The potential for reading contrasting, challenging or alternative viewpoints is vastly reduced, impacting the opportunity for a balanced outlook. This is particularly concerning ahead of elections in Germany, France and Holland this year in which news organisations will play a key public service role – presenting the arguments, and evidence, from different sides.

5.2 There is no doubt that online platforms, Facebook and Google being the most widely used, distort or manipulate the way in which people consume news. It is clear that these organisations need to take responsibility for the impact that their platforms have on the dissemination of information. This includes working proactively to offer solutions to support news organisations and to put in place processes to reduce the impact and availability of fake news.

5.3 Both Facebook and Google describe themselves as platforms rather than publishers but such is the power of their algorithms and audience reach that their role in tackling the phenomenon of fake news is crucial. Greater transparency around the algorithm that disseminates “news” articles to readers would help to tackle this gradual narrowing of information sources so that readers are not simply presented with one (largely sympathetic) point of view.

5.4 Online platforms themselves have difficulty telling the difference between legitimate journalism and “fake” news sources. Google is facing accusations of spreading fake news, after its “featured snippets in search” functionality has been shown to share falsehoods and conspiracy theories as fact. According to a recent article from the Guardian[iv] asking Google, or the Google Home, “is Obama planning a coup” would result in an answer taken from a site called Secrets of the Fed which stated: “According to details exposed in Western Centre for Journalism’s exclusive video, not only could Obama be in bed with the communist Chinese, but Obama may in fact be planning a communist coup d’état at the end of his term in 2016!”

5.5 It should be noted that by successfully engaging with social media and digital platforms these have enabled ITN’s journalism to reach audiences far beyond the realms of traditional TV broadcast. In 2016 our content on the Channel 4 News Facebook page received more than two billion views. This was unique, hard-hitting content – such as footage of the war in Syria – not clickbait.  ITN’s consistent focus was on serious journalism and the remit of the programme driving that audience growth – with individual films regularly scoring over 60 million views.

5.6 This demonstrates that younger audiences are interested in hard news and news from around the world. Channel 4 News’ Aleppo footage alone has received more than 400 million views since the start of 2016. However, Facebook has also benefited from the popularity of our content and it is our belief that currently the relationship is not one of equals – where Facebook is receiving vastly disproportionate revenue which should be returned to the original news supplier. If Facebook will not accept the responsibilities that come with publisher status then it seems reasonable to say that revenues from this content should be redirected back to the organisation that has invested the time and resources to create the journalism. We would also call for transparency around the amount that Facebook is investing in combatting fake news through initiatives such as fact checking and also a declaration of how much revenue Facebook currently receives from fake news sites that it hosts.

5.7 While Ofcom’s remit does not extend to content produced online ITN applies the same rigour and standards to all content whether for broadcast or digital and each of our newsrooms observe due impartiality online.

  • Is there any difference in the way people of different ages, social backgrounds, genders etc use and respond to fake news?

 6.0 Globally, more than a quarter of 18–24 year olds say social media (28%) is their main source of news – more than television (24%). Facebook is by far the most popular social network for news, with 44% of those surveyed internationally claiming that they use Facebook for news.[v]

6.1 The growth of news consumption on digital platforms, especially amongst younger people, and the fact that many now receive news and consume it on those platforms via their mobile devices, has diluted the identity and recognition of the publishers whose work they host. The majority of young people responding to where they get their news from in recent digital news surveys said they got it from Twitter, Facebook or other digital platforms – they rarely remember the actual organisations whose copy they are reading or  whose journalism generated the videos they are watching. This means that the assumption that many mainstream media make – that their audience can differentiate between a “credible” news source and another less regulated site – is increasingly undermined.

6.2 A YouGov survey carried out in January 2017 by Channel 4, ahead of a Fake News Week spearheaded by Channel 4 News, found that when people were shown six individual news stories, three of which were true and three of which were fake, only 4% were able to correctly identify them all correctly.[vi]  The same survey found that two thirds of the British public (66%) think social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter aren’t doing enough to tackle Fake News.

6.3 Audiences see these platforms in effect as the publisher; and this is inevitable when you look at the branding and overall experience of being on these platforms. These platforms are hugely successful at attracting audiences and keeping them on the platform to consume a variety of content which is curated from different sources. The association with news is now hugely lucrative and appetite for news is keeping people on content platforms for longer. At present the platforms are benefiting from hosting this content but are impacting upon the business models which have for decades provided complicated and costly set ups with fact checkers, editors, and lawyers complying and checking the stories their organisation’s journalists produce.

6.4 Legitimate news organisations are vying for their audience’s attention against the sensationalist content of other sites claiming to provide news. The top 20 fake stories about the US election were shared almost nine million times in the three months up until last November, making them more popular than the top 20 real stories. Those stories, produced at a fraction of the cost of a legitimate news story, would have attracted significant advertising revenue for both the sites and for social media platforms.  Social media platforms have tried to address this and as a result Google banned 200 fraudulent sites off its advertising network. Facebook changed its “trending topic” feature to include only substantiated news sources. There is more to be done however, to ensure that fake news sites are not either incentivised or sustained by advertising revenue.

6.5 Algorithms employed by both Facebook and Google provide individuals with specifically selected articles that fit with their previous search histories and interests. Telling people what they already know and what they already believe makes them more likely to believe it – even if it is blatantly false or not backed up by any factual references. This applies to both the right and left side of politics.

6.6 Facebook has undertaken a number of initiatives to tackle the issue of fake news spread via the platform. This month Facebook started to roll out a ‘Disputed’ tag for news stories deemed to be inaccurate, although it is not clear whether being “disputed” will impact an items’ performance within its ranking algorithm.

6.7 If Facebook users report a story as fake news, it may be sent to the fact checkers. And if those partners say the story is fake or a hoax, it will receive the disputed warning label. According to an explanatory video from Facebook it alerts users again before they can share the story. Outsourcing this fact checking mechanism to other media organisations is currently in a trial phase so it is unclear how effective or practicable it will be. Facebook said it is “in talks with a number of interested media partners” about its fact-checking initiative in Germany, after Digiday reported the majority of publishers in the country wouldn’t participate partly due to a lack of information and resources from Facebook[vii]. Regardless, the effectiveness of asking audiences to self-regulate news appearing on their feeds is likely to be extremely limited. It has been shown that audiences pay little attention to the originator of news content and content thrown up by algorithms which reinforces existing beliefs is, we believe, unlikely to trigger widespread use of the “dispute” function.

6.8 Finally, there is inadequate copyright protection for a lot of online content that is then reproduced on YouTube and Facebook. While more than 300 million people viewed Channel 4 News online content from Aleppo a further 100 million watched it on sites that had stolen the material – in many cases adding Russian or Arabic commentary. Fake sites use real footage to get credibility and it’s difficult for audiences to see who it belongs to. The potential for genuine journalism to be distorted by sites that misappropriate it is substantial and has been raised by Ben de Pear in a variety of forums.[viii]

  • Have changes in the selling and placing of advertising encouraged the growth of fake news, for example by making it profitable to use fake news to attract more hits to websites, and thus more income from advertisers?

7.0 A Channel 4 News investigation found that teenagers in Macedonia[ix] were deliberately creating fake news stories designed for a US audience in order to attract advertising revenue. While the stories were political in nature the motivation for populating the site with “clickbait” style stories was to attract advertising revenue. The widespread use of programmatic advertising to place adverts automatically online means that brands often have no control over where their advertising content ends up. The algorithm that places programmatic advertising online (across sites such as Facebook and YouTube) does not appear to differentiate between the type of content that it places ads beside – meaning that false stories that get lots of clicks or shares will attract more ads and greater revenue. This in turn encourages fake news sites as a viable business online.

7.1 ITN calls for greater transparency from within the advertising industry on how they can tackle this issue as well as the platforms where they are placed such as Facebook and YouTube. It is clear that brands do not want to have their content associated with fake news or indeed controversial or offensive sites.[x] An investigation from The Times reported that hundreds of leading brands were unwittingly funding Islamic extremists and white supremacists by advertising on their websites.[xi] Waitrose and Mercedes-Benz adverts placed by Google through its AdSense network appeared on hate sites and YouTube videos by supporters of groups including Islamic State.

7.2 Both Facebook and Google have made attempts restrict advertising around sites that publish misleading content but without the input and cooperation of the programmatic advertising industry – which claims to provide brands with an effective means of placing ads next to content with the largest relevant audience – this can at best be a partial solution.

7.3 Advertising revenue may help to fund fake news sites but the motivation behind it is often the creation of propaganda. Another Channel 4 News investigation tracked down a number of dubious right wing news sites to an office in Hungary linked to Knights Templar International which deliberately published fake news across a range of sites purporting to be credible journalism to create far right propaganda.[xii] Fake news requires none of the journalistic and legal investment and overheads that legitimate journalism does and can be generated at the fraction of the cost of a news story from a credible organisation – yet it can potentially generate more revenue on social media from advertising by acting as clickbait for audiences.

7.4 For legitimate journalism Facebook has attempted to offer a solution to news organisations to increase revenue with a proposed “midroll” function on video content. This would involve interrupting content with a programmatic “ad break” part way through – which the publisher (e.g. Channel 4 News) would have no control over. While our newsrooms would consider using this where appropriate it should be noted that due to the sensitive nature of the vast proportion of our news content this would not be possible in most cases. For example, it would not be appropriate to interrupt a video of a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo with any form of advertising. In fact, of Channel 4 News’s top 20 videos by number of views from January 2016 to the present day only two could potentially support midroll advertising. This indicates that midroll advertising is not appropriate for the vast majority of news content and would not provide a significant revenue increase for news providers.

Conclusion and recommendations:

8.0 Fake news is a powerful and dangerous force in our online ecosystem because it confirms an existing bias and the natural tendency of people to accept information that aligns with their beliefs and to reject information that challenges them.

8.1 ITN was pleased to note the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee chair Damian Collins’ calls at the Oxford Media Convention this month for online platforms to address the issue of funding of fake news sites through advertising. It is vital that these sites are not rewarded for peddling fake stories and neither should social media platforms benefit from them.

8.2 Mr Collins MP also warned of the potential for social media algorithms to unintentionally narrow media plurality within the social media ecosystem.[xiii]  ITN considers this to be a distinct risk which undermines the role of media to inform. Transparency around the algorithms that create curated news feeds is necessary and platforms should consider what alternations could be made to provide a wider range of news content and views. At present there are also concerns that algorithms employed by platforms such as Facebook prioritise virality of content over its veracity.

8.3 Traditional news organisations require substantial investment and as the media environment evolves safeguards must be put in place to ensure that the work of journalists is protected and rewarded, so that power can continue to be held to account. Protecting the business model of journalism, particularly public service journalism, is vital and generating funds through the fair distribution of online revenue is central to this.

8.4 Public service broadcasters and their journalists play a vital role in generating trust in the media. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of reporting and impartiality across all platforms.  This can only continue through ongoing investment in order to cement the position of UK journalism and reinforce the pluralistic media ecology. As content is increasingly disseminated through social media platforms these platforms must recognise the contribution to their own business model made by news and provide markedly more substantial return on investment than is currently offered. This is simply about providing originators of news content with their fair share of the revenue in return for providing material that so effectively engages audiences on social platforms.

8.5 UK media organisations are in a privileged position where overall trust in news is much higher than the US. According to a 2016 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute, 50% of UK consumers trust news most of the time compared to just 33% in the US.[xiv] UK news organisations are trusted by 42% of consumers compared to just 30% in the US. The same report from Reuters attributed this to a Western Europe and Scandinavian mix of strong well-funded public service broadcasters and commercial players – showing the importance of PSB content as well as commercial content to provide media pluralism. There is a danger that we will lose our audience’s trust if we do not fight hard to maintain it. Currently we do not see the same level of cynicism towards our news media in the UK as that in the US but in this global news environment this cannot be taken for granted – and to do so would be to fail the British public, and audiences around the world who rely upon us to provide impartial, authoritative and trustworthy journalism.

8.6 ITN is extremely engaged on the issue of fake news and is very willing to participate in any further panels or evidence sessions that could contribute to proposed solutions or initiatives. In order to maintain the UK’s position as a country that values and supports its news media, and the role it plays, news organisations must work in partnership with global online platforms and advertising companies to ensure that our role in the democratic process is not jettisoned in favour of revenue-friendly clickbait.

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45V_g5ajRMg [ii] http://digiday.com/uk/facebooks-european-media-chief-addresses-fake-news-game-whack-mole/ [iii] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-rights-idUSKBN1690GA [iv] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/06/google-accused-spreading-fake-news [v] Source: Reuters Institute for Journalism, Digital News Report 2016 [vi] YouGov survey of 1684 British adults aged over 18 commissioned by Channel 4, January 2017. [vii] https://digiday.com/media/german-publishers-facebook/ [viii] http://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2017/02/16/channel-4-news-editor-facebook-paying-us-minuscule-amount-our-2-billion-video [ix] https://www.channel4.com/news/fake-news-in-macedonia-who-is-writing-the-stories

[x] https://www.wsj.com/articles/fake-news-sites-inadvertently-funded-by-big-brands-1481193004

[xi] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/public-cash-paying-for-growth-of-fake-news-vb2hbvs3x [xii] https://www.channel4.com/news/fake-news-the-far-right-in-hungary [xiii] http://www.newsmediauk.org/Latest/collins-fake-news-a-challenge-to-democracy [xiv] Source: Reuters Institute for Journalism, Digital News Report 2016
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