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How to spot Fake News

Nick Collins

The role of a press officer isn’t just to push stories, it’s to help shape them in the right way. With journalists now under pressure to produce more content, more quickly, and generate more clicks, that role has become more important than ever.

To a journalist, the need to be on the look-out for ‘fake news’ isn’t especially new. Checking your sources is paramount, and you develop a pretty keen sense for information that might be unreliable.

I remember one memorable night on the Daily Telegraph newsdesk in 2010, when police in Newcastle were in a stand-off with the gunman Raoul Moat. We picked up unverified local radio reports that Gazza had turned up at the scene with a fishing rod and some chicken, offering to help. I’ll never forget his agent’s voice on the phone when I called to check. “He’s done what? I’ll have to call you back

As a science reporter, fake news is usually less to do with outright fraud, than it is to do with the way data and evidence are presented. Of course fabrication is a big concern in academic science, and you have to do your due diligence – but identifying fraudulent results is the job of the academic community, not journalists.

The bigger worry is that you will become the unwitting proponent of fake news by falling foul of a scientist – or indeed a press officer – who has presented something out of context.

With so many stories to cover and the daily pressure to come up with great stories, you’ll always be tempted to follow the most sensational headlines, but at the same time you have to be constantly wary of what people are telling you. “Smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, new study shows” would be a cracking story, if it weren’t for that pesky body of evidence showing that the opposite is true.

You learn to watch out for the warning signs: studies done in mice, low sample sizes, journals you’ve never heard of before. And with the majority of scientists being at pains to talk down the story you want to write, you become especially wary of those who try to play it up.

Above all, it’s about relationships. A good press officer understands the pressures journalists are under and will work with them to take the strongest possible line which accurately reflects the story in its proper context. These are the PR contacts that journalists cherish. A bad one will either lead you down the garden path or stamp out anything resembling a good news line. These are the ones you don’t call back.

The role of a press officer isn’t just to push stories, it’s to help shape them in the right way. With journalists now under pressure to produce more content, more quickly, and generate more clicks, that role has become more important than ever