Guest Columns
6 mins read

Journalism 2020: The rise of populism

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...


The World Media Group recently hosted ‘Journalism 2020: The Rise of Populism’, the first in a series of ‘Smart Briefings’, which aim to address the pressing issues facing publishers, brands and advertisers today. The event examined how newsrooms are coming to terms with the challenges of the ‘fake news’ era and what the implications are for the wider media/advertising industry. The panel represented six of some of the world’s largest media brands, chaired by Sarah Thorpe, Managing Director, Europe for the New York Times.

What exactly is fake news?

‘Fake news’ is a term that we all use daily so the first question Thorpe asked the panel was, what exactly do we mean when we say ‘fake news’?

Phillipa Leighton-Jones, Editorial Director, Innovation at the Wall Street Journal reminded us that actually, fake news has been in existence as long as news has been in existence, in varying degrees, whether through bias, opinion or downright manipulation of information. “What’s changed is the velocity and sophistication of the tools available, which is, in many cases, playing into an increasingly polarised political environment.” Fake news, she said, could conceivably mean, everything from the most sophisticated deep-fake to someone not being honest about where their information has come from in an otherwise respected newspaper.

Citing a Reuters report that asked people about their level of trust in the media, Mary Wilkinson, Head of Editorial Content, BBC Global News, said in the UK alone trust had dropped from 55% in 2015 to 40% last year, coinciding with Brexit. “As a reputable broadcaster, we need to do our utmost to ensure truth stands out from the crowd and that people know there are places to go to for accurate and impartial information,” she said.

For Anne McElvoy, Senior Editor and Head of Economist Radio at The Economist, fake news boils down to motivation. “Fake news has to be about the intention to distort or deceive,” she said. “If that’s not the intention then it’s not fake news. We should also be aware that the media is capable of committing fake news without meaning to. It’s something we have to be transparent about. What do we do when we screw up?”

Hazel Baker, global head of UGC news gathering at Reuters, hates the term ‘fake news’. “It’s so broad, it’s ill-defined and tells you nothing,” she said. “I think categorisation is really important when it comes to actually assessing problems and understanding. The broad categories in fake news are misinformation – the spreading of false information – and disinformation – the deliberate spreading of false information”.

She explained that for her team, inaccurate visual information is a huge problem, generated when the first cameras on the scene are not news cameras. In fact 90% of fake visual content is actually recycled old content that has lost its context.

Baker’s point underscores why quality journalism is so important; having official cameras on the ground at any breaking news event limits the spread of false information.

The impact on advertiser trust

But good quality journalism costs money. The impact of fake news is that consumers are losing faith in the media, and advertisers are worried about where their ads are going to be seen.

“The net impact is that often advertisers don’t know where to go,” said Leighton-Jones. “In some cases this has led to instances of ‘blacklisting’ where advertisers won’t place ads against key words such as ‘Trump’. It’s a crude measure. Overall what that loss of confidence among advertisers could mean for media at large is less funding for quality journalism, which costs a lot of money to make.”

Wilkinson agreed. “I think it’s in the interests of advertisers to know where their ads are going to be,” she said. “Subscriptions are rapidly growing, but good quality journalism is still dependent on advertiser revenue. I would buy direct, you don’t always have to go via the advertising platforms.”

More regulation for social media

Alex Wood, Europe Editor for Forbes, expressed his concerns about the effect social media platforms are having on journalism and believes we have to move away from a media obsessed with chasing for clicks and return to a more considered approach. It’s about slowing down,” he said. “We’re becoming obsessed with the clicks – the race to get into Google News is a race to the bottom.”

All the panel agreed that there needed to be greater regulation of the online platforms, and Woods welcomed the recent news that Ofcom will be given greater powers over social media, forcing them to step in over harmful content.

“When they have the capacity to change opinion and change the world, they have to abide by the same standards. The game is really up for platforms. This idea that they can pretend they don’t have the same responsibilities as a publisher is wildly dated. When you think of the capacity they have to influence opinion and to change the world, I think they have to behave in the same way, to the same standards.”

The panel agreed that educating audiences about what they are reading and where they can find accurate, impartial information is essential. Whilst quality news organisations continue to work to high standards, they need to be incredible transparent and earn back trust by communicating what they are doing.

To that end, Wilkinson explained that the BBC has a public-facing website that “covers everything from misinformation to disinformation, to debunking rumours and theories doing the rounds on social media”.

Publishers need to work together

But it’s not something a single news organisation can do in isolation. Last year, the BBC convened the Trusted News Summit. “We’re now working with a number of partners because no one publisher can do this on their own,” Wilkinson said. “It includes the FT, Facebook, Google, Reuters, AFP, where we’re going to try and set up an early warning system because in certain situations, particularly in developing or new democracies, disinformation is actively dangerous.

“We’re trying to establish a framework where one publisher can alert everyone else and the tech platforms and hopefully nip things in the bud before they go completely viral.”

Wilkinson says she’s optimistic about the future: “On polarising subjects, there’ll always be people who believe what they want to believe. But there will be subjects where they will need to know the facts, and if those publications have a track record of being accurate and impartial, they will turn to those outlets. The antidote to all this is keep on doing very good journalism, explain your methods and when you make mistakes, admit them, and hopefully the truth will out.”

As Sarah Thorpe wrapped up the lively debate, her closing observations as chair were:

1. Media literacy as a whole is something we need to work together on as an industry.

2. It’s essential for media owners to earn back trust. This means being incredibly transparent about what they’re doing and demonstrating the value they provide by showing why their content is unique from all the other information sources out there – and particularly digitally.

3. Finally, there is a lot of work to be done to hold the social media platforms to account.

By Belinda Barker, Director, World Media Group

About: The World Media Group is a strategic alliance of leading international media organizations that connects brands with highly engaged, influential audiences in the context of trusted and renowned journalism. Its members include The Atlantic, BBC Global News, Bloomberg Media Group, Business Insider, CNBC, The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, National Geographic, Reuters, The New York Times Company, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and associate members: Moat, Smartology and The Smithsonian.

The next WMG Smart Briefing, “Brand Safety in a Journalistic / News Environment” is on March 31st. Go to to reserve a place.