Countering disinformation: enhancing journalistic legitimacy in public service media

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Journalism Media and Cultural Studies


The rise of disinformation about politics and public affairs represents an existential threat to democratic governance in many countries. After all, democracy rests on citizens having access to accurate and reliable information sources in order to make judgments about how they should be governed. But over recent years public trust in the news has declined and the legitimacy of journalism has been undermined. In collaboration with leading public service media (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) and a commercial news organisation (Sky News), this project will develop the most in-depth UK comparative study to date that analyses disinformation reporting and critically examines how news users respond to it. By working collaboratively with senior editors to identify where TV, online and social media platforms can more effectively counter disinformation and communicate this reporting, the aim of the project will be to enhance journalistic legitimacy in ways that better serve the democratic needs of citizens.

From state interference in other countries' election campaigns to the emergent influence of populist political candidates, parties and movements, the infrastructure of today's media and communication environment has opened up new ways of manipulating and disrupting flows of information. As a consequence terms such as 'post-truth politics' or 'fake news' have become synonymous with the changing political environment, the growing supply of dubious disinformation and a crisis in the legitimacy of contemporary journalism. Whether teenage Macedonians inventing 'news' in order to influence the US elections or the Ukrainian government falsely declaring a journalist had been killed by Russian forces, the source of disinformation can range widely from democratic states entering into diplomatic games to private citizens acting duplicitously or for financial gain. While citizens may have been exposed to disinformation online, whether from a story being shared on Facebook or liked on Twitter, most - as research has shown - will be more likely to encounter disinformation from mainstream media organisations, such as the BBC. This is because legacy media remain the most widely consumed and influential information sources, with news produced by public service media often singled out for being the most trusted in representative UK surveys. However, the rise of partisan news and disinformation across online and social media platforms has created echo chambers and filter bubbles that are increasingly undermining the legitimacy of news produced by public service media. In order to ensure public service media are viewed as a credible news source into the 21st century, it is essential that their disinformation reporting addresses the needs of citizens in a fast-changing media ecology.

The project will interview senior editorial staff at leading public service media and Sky News in the UK, develop an in-depth content analysis of their news across TV, online and social media, and carry out 18 focus groups with news users. The aim of the study will be to find editorial solutions to countering disinformation in routine reporting, identifying the ways in which the legitimacy of journalism can be enhanced according to news users. From state propaganda to dubious claims made by politicians, our project will assess how such disinformation can be more effectively challenged and communicated in ways that reinforce and promote journalistic legitimacy among citizens. We will work closely with broadcasters to understand their disinformation reporting and discuss whether it is viewed as legitimate journalism by news users. The project's findings will be promoted widely across our university networks and in popular media, and we will engage with relevant stakeholders, such as journalists, regulators, politicians, policy makers and citizens, through public and private meetings and events.

Planned Impact

The main impact objective of this proposal is to enhance journalistic legitimacy by working with senior editors and regulators at leading public service and commercial news media to enhance disinformation reporting and, ultimately, raise public knowledge and understanding of public affairs.

Specifically, the project will:

- Provide a means for broadcasters and regulators to understand the effectiveness of routine disinformation reporting.
- Support the reflective process that will make disinformation reporting much more effective.

In the longer term, the project will help broadcast news retain and enhance its legitimacy according to news users, and more broadly ensure public service media remain an authoritative and trusted source of news in years to come. At present, there is limited collaborative research that directly works with senior editors to counter the growing mistrust of news media. This has potentially huge implications for the health of democracy, since the news media represent the primary source of information most people rely on to understand what is happening in the world. Our project offers a vital way of developing a collaborative relationship with the news industry that can build the necessary evidence base and support a way forward for engendering greater legitimacy in journalism produced by leading UK news organisations.

By developing a constructive relationship with news organisations, the research will impact on future editorial judgements about disinformation conventions and practices. The responses among news users in the focus groups, for example, could make editors rethink how their journalism can be rethought in ways that serve news users more effectively. When we discuss the findings with the editorial teams of each media organisation, we will encourage them to critically re-examine their disinformation initiatives, changing their editorial codes, practices and conventions in ways that will enhance public legitimacy in news reporting.

By engaging with Ofcom and the BBC's unitary board, another aim of the project is to raise editorial standards in news reporting and inform policy recommendations about media regulation. So, for example, if our research established that BBC news output had not accurately informed viewers about a particular issue or that many focus groups members were requesting more robust fact checking in flagship programmes this evidence could inform BBC's unitary broad and lead to future editorial changes at a programme level or in the BBC's editorial guidelines. Ofcom, by contrast, has a statuary role in regulating the UK's due impartiality rules so the evidence about how accurate and impartial all broadcasters are will help them form judgements about any complaints and adjudications.

By presenting research at fringe events at the Conservative and Labour party conferences and disseminating findings through other means, we aim to make evidence-based interventions into UK Parliamentary issues and international debates about news standards and media regulation. For example, in an ongoing select committee inquiry into fake news/disinformation, our findings would identify areas where news standards could be improved according to news users, such as more transparently fact checking events or issues.

The project will also aim to raise public understanding and debate about countering disinformation by writing for popular blogs about the latest research, and disseminating ideas about enhancing legitimacy in journalism across online and social media platforms. In doing so, we aim to engage a wider audience about media literacy and use that engagement in our collaborations with editors to ensure it feeds into their future editorial output that will ultimately benefit the many millions of UK users who rely on public service media for accurate and impartial journalism.


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