Today the Sunderland Echo joins forces with local and regional titles across the UK to launch a campaign to fight fake news.
As we approach the most significant national election in a generation, the need for independent local newspapers and their websites to report and explain the issues in an entirely neutral, honest and balanced way is essential.
This approach is in keeping with their ethos of always seeking to provide trusted news, campaigning on behalf of their communities, giving advertisers respected platforms to promote their services, exposing wrongdoing through painstaking investigations, and ensuring that the voice of residents and the business community is heard with clarity and authority.
This election will be different from any other. It is not simply that the outcome will define our future relationship with the EU and the manner in which it is negotiated; but it will be held in the context of the phenomenon of fake news.
In the past 12 months there has barely been a single global event – from the election of the President of the United States to an incident involving a gunman at a Washington pizzeria – that has not been infected by the suggestion that entirely fabricated information designed to deceive had been circulated indiscriminately via social media.
Fake news takes many forms and operates at several levels. At its most extreme and democratically destructive, it comprises deliberately and maliciously contrived statements which are cynically distributed in the guise of real news with the aim of deceiving for political or financial gain.
More frequently, it is an unsubstantiated rumour indiscriminately posted on social media sites which rapidly gains credence, to the distress of those featured in it and the alarm of all who read it. Repetition through ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ adds an undeserved authority. Comment, unlabelled as such, masquerades as truth; satire is confused with reality.
‘Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth’, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels.
It is little surprise that major businesses – whose role is critical to jobs and the economic success on which we all depend – are increasingly shunning digital sites that have placed their advertisements alongside extremist and offensive material.
That would never happen within our print and digital pages. When you advertise your business with us, you are sharing in the family values that underpin everything we do. We are uniquely placed to ensure that our newspapers and websites enhance and magnify your values. Your advertisements will appear alongside content that meets the very high standards to which our profession is committed.
Fake news can be hard to identify. In November, a BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake presidential election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
The great global social media conglomerates have been slow to respond and grudging to intervene. When they do, they give the impression that their intercession is more favour than obligation. They sit outside all normal regulation that robustly holds traditional media to account and they are often immune from actions for defamation or contempt.
You would have thought politicians would have made the eradication of these hoax story sites a top priority, demanding that the global internet and social media giants must be made responsible for what they transmit.
Instead, it is established newspapers and their websites which continue to be the political whipping boys, expected to submit to the most rigorous regulation and the threat of the most pernicious and damaging regime of court costs on the planet while they seek to pursue honest, investigative journalism in the public interest.
Unlike social media and the major digital platforms, this newspaper and its website are accountable for every single word we publish.
We have signed up to a comprehensive Editors’ Code of Practice – which even our detractors have imitated – and we and all our staff have contractually bound themselves to its requirements. This code encompasses everything from accuracy to privacy, harassment, intrusion into grief or shock, protecting children, reporting crime, and the use of clandestine devices and subterfuge.
It is explicit in the sensitivity we show in reporting suicides and protecting the most vulnerable in society, not least the victims of sexual assault.
As a result, virtually all the content that we generate ourselves is produced by journalists trained by the National Council for the Training of Journalists to the highest industry benchmarks. These reporters are qualified in a range of skills – from newspaper law and ethics to shorthand, to ensure we get every quote right.
Every word they write is checked in local newspaper offices by qualified, senior experts and if we do make a genuine mistake, you can contact us immediately – we are real people, locally based, living in our shared communities. We’re not some digital algorithm.
We are passionate and exquisitely professional about the way in which we hold decision makers to account, represent our home towns, and provide news and information that is suitable for whole families.
We are honest brokers of local information, upholding the values that you share with us, seeking always to do the right thing no matter how difficult that can sometimes be in fast changing times.
That all costs money. When you buy our paper or advertise with us you are supporting the very journalism and quality that keeps integrity at the heart of all we do.
We make a real difference.
In the past year alone, the campaigns run by local newspapers have highlighted threats to hospitals and in one specific case a serious failing in a local authority’s children’s services.
Another investigation led to the revelation of allegations of child abuse among drivers working for a council.
Many local newspapers have been in existence for a century or more.
They have often been the single catalyst for social change.
At heart, they are the conscience of a community and the defender of its truth.
Our title piece is a hallmark for our core value.
With pride, we provide trusted news and honest advertisement platforms, and thanks to the tireless diligence of our editorial staff you can be confident that our stories are always exactly what they purport to be: the genuine article. Fact – not fake.
If you are not sure that a snippet of local news you've seen on social media is fact or take, we can check it out.
Email our hotline at email@example.com with a screen grab of the item or all the details you have and our trained professionals will investigate.
The story needs to be local and it must be passing itself off as news - perhaps it is an alleged crime or a claim about a decision made by the local council.
We'll let you know the outcome of our investigation - and we will share the truth with our readers too.
Fake news - together we can fight it. And that's a fact.