Whatever the country, independent journalists constantly face the challenge of dealing with slippery officials who whitewash policies and “spin” controversial government actions.
In my 25 years working as a journalist in countries like Russia and Kazakhstan, one challenge I’ve observed is that in many cases, the problem isn’t that government officials are willing to go on the record telling blatant untruths — they don’t have to, because certain media outlets already do so for them.
As I saw in Russia and formerly the USSR, there’s a well-known practice of elites “sending a signal” to journalists about how they should report on a story. It’s never an explicit order, but state media will dutifully fall in line.
Some of the most outrageous false reporting about the 2014 Crimea crisis, for example, came not from government officials but from Russian state-owned TV stations, NTV and Life News. As has been widely documented, the 2014 crisis in the Ukraine saw Kremlin-backed media outlets produce a wave of disinformation and false stories. This was a policy of distraction, an attempt to confuse people about what was really going on.
Dealing with this barrage of fake news means independent journalists face the daunting, time-consuming task of constantly debunking and fact-checking bogus reports. Fact-checking is certainly in the public interest, but when an independent media organization has to dedicate the majority of their resources to explaining why certain reports or statements aren’t true, this distracts from time and energy that could be used for original reporting.
Here’s an example: a BBC correspondent recorded reporters from a Russian TV station, admitting that they were forced to falsely broadcast that a 10-year-old girl died in a shelling attack.
What a great story! What amazing reporting! I remember seeing this report for the first time and almost crying, I was so blown away. But this reporter and her crew had to use their time and resources to right the record on something that never should have been a story in the first place. The reporter had to risk her life, and her crew's life, to expose fake news. You might say that the tail is wagging the dog.
Here’s another case: Pervyi Kanal, one of Russia’s most important and most-watched news stations, broadcast a story about a child being crucified by a Ukrainian soldier. When independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta dispatched a reporter to fact-check the story, the reporter found no evidence to back it up.
Once again, the Novaya Gazeta reporter had to spend time and resources, and risk life and limb in a very dangerous warzone, to refute a fake news story. Novaya Gazeta is a small-circulation newspaper with a tiny budget in comparison to the well-funded state TV stations. Even though the crucifixion story was ultimately debunked, this ridiculous story still dominated the news cycle for days and was a huge distraction from real facts and issues.
You might say that the real challenge is to try and refute blatantly fake stories and assertions as soon as possible, to prevent them from dominating the airwaves. But the catch-22 is that when independent media has to struggle to keep up with daily, high-speed fact-checks, this again drains their time and energy.
When I worked at CNN's Moscow bureau, I saw how closely the network monitored state TV. They pay a producer whose primary job is to record state TV newscasts and cut-ins. Suspicious reporting is spotted immediately, but refuting a lie — especially if it involves sending a reporter to investigate — is costly and impossible to do on a regular basis.
Sadly, over time this fog of disinformation gets demoralizing. It breeds cynicism and even hopelessness. Independent news outlets may find themselves in situations where the lies are so numerous, it’s impossible to correct everything. And meanwhile, the fact-checks that do expose lies never get broadcasted on the most problematic TV stations anyway.
But what's the alternative? Ignoring lies and fake news is surrender. The challenge for independent news organizations is finding that balance between systematically fact-checking, but also pursuing important stories about corruption, national security and other topics in the public interest. If a news organization has the option to expand their staffing and budget so that they can deal with these challenges, they should do so.
Overall, if fact-checking starts diverting significant resources from original reporting, that’s a problem. In order to stay focused, media organizations need to commit to prioritizing certain types of coverage over others, and remain wary of getting caught up in the “fake news” cycle.