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MEDIA: How fake news is created and what to do about it

MEDIA: How fake news is created and what to do about it

False and fake news bring the media into disrepute. They would actually be an opportunity for journalism.

Courtship Bruppacher

On January 17th it was that time again: news portals of leading media in Germany and Switzerland reported with high priority that the German Federal Constitutional Court had banned the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). The opposite was true. The wrong headline came about because the journalists confused the application read out by the presiding judge to the court with the verdict - at least according to the statement by “Zeit Online” and “Spiegel Online”.

A classic false report. And no fake news. An annoying mistake, but not an intentional misleading one.

"You are fake news"

For both false and (politically incorrectly phrased) “faked” news, the term “fake news” has become common in recent months. Even humanized since Donald Trump cut off a CNN reporter at a press conference on January 11 by shouting “You are fake news”. With all the excitement about the “post-factual age” it should not be forgotten that false and forged news is not a new phenomenon. And - this prognosis is daring - that attempts to criminalize fake news and thus to ban it by law will prove to be just as unsuitable as the planned technical precautions against news manipulation.

One wrong letter is enough

The following are a few examples based on personal experience and observations of the news business over three decades: I found out what consequences a single wrong letter can have at the end of 2006. I wrote this in a report about an accusation by the Zurich judiciary of pornography offers for cell phones Name of the accused company with “v” instead of “w”. A completely innocent production company had a reputation for being active in the sex business. It was only thanks to the owner's forbearance that the matter could be resolved with a subsequent correction.

How did the mistake come about: My source was a television report, which I had the court confirm, including the company name that was only mentioned but not written. Poor sources are a common cause of false reports.

For example, the AP news from 1997 is remembered, according to which a "flying cow" is said to have sunk a Japanese fishing boat in the Sea of ​​Okhotsk. This great story went like this: Russian soldiers stole cows in Siberia and put them on a transport plane. In the air, the untethered animals became restless and caused the aircraft to spin. The soldiers saw no other way out than to drive the cows out through the large tailgate. One of the animals crashed into a Japanese fishing boat that sank.

A German newspaper was named as the source in the report, which in turn relied on a confidential report from the German embassy in Moscow to the headquarters in Germany. The story could never be proven. The origin was probably a joke that circulated in Russian officer circles.

Between news and horror tales

Then there are the types of news that can be circulated safely in so far as the source is simply not verifiable. The alleged or actual atrocities committed by Kim Jong Un are prime examples. The horror regime in North Korea should not be belittled here. But if so-called serious media also report that the country's defense minister was "apparently shot with an anti-aircraft gun", a little more restraint would not hurt. Especially since we remember Kim's uncle, who is said to have been fed to 120 dogs (or was it only 100?), And Kim's clean-up operation in a ministry with the flamethrower, which allegedly fell victim to a deputy minister. The sources of all these reports are so thin and questionable - often a South Korean newspaper that relies on intelligence information - that it would be better to land them in the trash.

Lasting damage (accompanied by the glee of the competition) occurs when the media bury living celebrities. This is what happened on June 1, 1963, when the “Blick” on the front page reported “A great Pope has died”. John XXIII died two days later. The cause was a mix-up of the printing plates in the print shop. The editorial staff sinned when the DPA news agency reported the death of the Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev eight months later, on April 13, 1964. This was preceded by a chain of misunderstandings and a fictitious telex to a DPA customer. Khrushchev did not die until eight years later. In 1991 the SPK news agency sat on a telephone caller who posed as the party secretary of the CVP and reported the death of former Federal Councilor Kurt Furgler. The news went unchecked; Furgler lived until 2008. "The report of my death was an exaggeration," the American writer Mark Twain had declared in 1897.

Deceptively genuinely fabricated false information fed into the media is particularly perfidious. This happened on January 23, 2000, when the German news agencies received a fax with the sender and telephone number of the CDU parliamentary group stating that the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl had decided to name the donors in the CDU donation affair. The message was passed on with high priority and only recognized as a forgery an hour later, when an agency that had not received the fax checked with the CDU headquarters.

The DPA agency was too good of faith in the so-called Bluewater affair. On September 10, 2009, she fell for a lavishly staged guerrilla marketing campaign for a film and reported on a bomb attack in the small town of Bluewater, California. The city does not exist and there was no attack. The list of errors and forgeries could be extended indefinitely. And can be traced far back into earlier centuries, as the US historian Jacob Soll recently described in the magazine “Politico”. However, the technical possibilities with which fake news are generated and distributed have changed. This does not mean that new means and methods are needed to detect false reports and prevent errors. Journalists are condemned to make mistakes, as «Spiegel» founder Rudolf Augstein once said. But it would be up to you to reduce the error rate to a tolerable level. By paying more attention to some basic rules.

How journalism could distinguish itself

First of all, there is the motto “Get it first, but first get it right”, which makes it clear that speed and accuracy are not alternatives. Because otherwise the credibility falls by the wayside. How little speed and exclusivity are if there is a lack of credibility is shown by an example from the US people news portal TMZ. It was the first medium to report the death of the musician Prince on April 21st. It was not until 17 minutes later, when the AP news agency confirmed the death, that the report was spread by major news portals around the world. Second, the requirement to check sources and ensure that the source is accurate is derived from the “get it right”. Events such as the Germanwings crash in France and the terrorist attacks of the last two years have impressively shown how important it is to deal with sources when information is disseminated every minute via Twitter and other channels.

Thirdly, a portion of steadfastness is required if the source location is too uncertain. Most sin is here. For example, the word “apparently” has to be used for non-verifiable messages. Or the not entirely kosher message is provided with a question mark. "Will Clooney be the father of twins?" is then to be read. Fourth, transparency is crucial for credibility. How it begins to establish itself on the online portals with the headings “What we know” and “What we don't know” in the case of breaking news. Transparency in dealing with errors is just as important.


The name of the Pope in the ninth section was subsequently corrected.