Storytellers On Both Sides Can Help Stop The Spread of False News

Posted by Hollie Geitner on 1/17/17 10:30 AM

There is a controversy brewing right now but unless you’re a journalist or work in public relations, you’re probably unaware. Even then, it might be under your radar, however this particular case has relevance to what we see, hear and read in the news today.

Here’s the gist – (que air quotes) ”a semi-famous” former Intel employee turned comedian, Dan Nainan, was recently exposed for lying about his age (among other things) while continually selling himself as an expert millennial in news stories. You can find him quoted in the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Business Insider, Forbes and many more.  The problem? He’s 55 and has apparently woven quite the web of lies in an attempt to make himself relevant.  It took years and a Daily Beast piece to officially out him.

How’d he do this? Well, let’s explore it a bit. Most public relations professionals use Help a Reporter Out (HARO), a free service that connects journalists looking for sources with subject matter experts. Developed by a PR guy, Peter Shankman, HARO sends several daily emails with queries from journalists writing about a wide variety of topics, all organized by subject or industry. It allows PR professionals to scan the queries to see if they (or their clients) are a good match for the story. Then, they pitch the reporter. It’s a win-win, right? I always thought so, having had some success with it myself over the years.

The Nainan case and subsequent follow-up in piece The Observer by Ryan Holiday reveal an underlying problem ­– verifying facts has become a lost art for some media outlets. But, let’s not place the blame entirely on news media. Whatever happened to integrity and honesty? Not just journalistic integrity, but on the PR side as well?

Con artists have been around since the dawn of time, so why does it seem that truth has gone out the window more than ever? Fake news stories and the incessant sharing of such nonsense has taken over social channels. Politicians from every corner of the earth take pride in pulling the wool over their followers and constituents’ eyes. Conscience? What’s that? Few seem to have one anymore.  This is all my opinion, of course.  

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Let’s face it – it is relatively easy to spot the fake news stories that people share on sites like Facebook and Twitter. It is the public’s fault for not being responsible enough to look before spreading false news. The real problem is when legitimate, well-respected, historically significant news organizations like the New York Times, USA Today and CNN post or air stories that haven’t been properly vetted or fact checked.  

Barton Swaim, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, addressed this very issue in a column last month. In it, he argued that while fake news is damaging, it isn’t likely to sway opinion or change someone’s allegiance to something or someone they care about. 

According to Swaim, “the false or inaccurate story published in a mainstream venue, by contrast, does the opposite. Maybe the story consists of mostly true statements, but it’s built on an egregiously false premise. Or maybe it includes a key line that infers far more than the facts allow. Or it presents a tendentious interpretation of the facts.”

Faulty sources, incomplete facts, misinformation and biased reporting can have significant consequences when presented by authoritative sources like those mentioned above. No doubt it has become increasingly difficult for many journalists to be impartial when writing their stories, but there are still many who take their jobs seriously and spend the time and effort to get it right instead of first. We can only hope the Dan Nainan case will spark more news outlets to verify sources and information before rushing to publish a story.

For those of us in PR, let’s remember our responsibility here as well. Truth and honesty should be the foundation from which we work. If it’s our job to tell our clients’ stories, it’s also our responsibility to do so in a way that helps, rather than hinders a journalist. We understand more than anyone that reputations can plummet faster than the stock market after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. It’s in our own best interest to avoid bombarding journalists with non-stories or intentionally trying to dupe reporters with misleading facts or false information. Please, for the sake of all of us who rely on the news – DON’T BE A DAN.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Hollie Geitner is vice president, client services at WordWrite Communications. She can be reached at hollie.geitner@wordwritepr.com.

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