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Public editor: The fight against ‘fake news’

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

Earlier this week, I received a complaint about a Globe investigation into a fake news site. The writer, who is a Canadian professor, called the article "fake news."

The Globe story labelled "Media and 'Fake News'" had the headline "NATO research centre sets sights on Canadian website over pro-Russia disinformation".

The article, by chief political writer Campbell Clark and senior international correspondent Mark MacKinnon, addressed the issue of "fake news" head on. It noted NATO's Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence was monitoring a website for pro-Russia propaganda and disinformation.

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The site, globalresearch.ca, has published articles that claim the Assad regime was not behind the chemical weapon attack in April, suggesting it was a hoax. It has also said the Sept. 11 attacks were orchestrated by the CIA.

The professor writing in didn't question these weird theories. Instead he accused the reporters of taking "their marching orders from NATO hacks to attack the credibility of an independent news outlet." After a to-and-fro about what is credible news, the professor was unconvinced, saying the pro-Russian site was "giving us the other side."

It is important to be skeptical about what you read, but his argument is a red herring. Listening to the other side is important for a different point of view or to learn new facts. There is no justification for incorporating unsubstantiated or made-up news into a story.

Most of you know the difference between credible news and conspiracy-based sites, and are rightly suspicious of those who throw out accusations of fake news, usually to decry news they don't like.

One definition of "fake news" is "deliberate misinformation created for political purposes or financial gain." Of course, there have always been those drawn to developing or following conspiracy theories, but now they have their internet bubbles to reinforce each other.

During the U.S. election, there were overseas bots and sites promoting "fake news." Some in Macedonia made thousands of dollars with pro-Trump "fake news" websites. According to an investigation in Wired, a fake story of "the imminent criminal indictment of Hillary Clinton" was very popular.

Credible journalism has standards for correcting errors and explains its sources.

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Earlier this month, The Globe announced it was the first Canadian partner to join other major media in The Trust Project, an international initiative that authenticates stories from project members through websites such as Google, Twitter and Facebook.

The principles include a correction policy, written standards and labelling whether an article is news, opinion or advertising. Search engines and platforms including Google and Facebook will use indicators on articles from the media partners that are part of this project.

This project is just one measure, and it doesn't mean The Globe and Mail doesn't recognize its fallibility. We make mistakes most days, but we correct them transparently. And the Globe's updated Code of Conduct, the standards for its journalism, appears on the homepage.

The professor's protest is just one of more than about 700 questions or complaints I deal with each year. The vast majority are from subscribers who appreciate much of what The Globe does but are disappointed when they see a typo, grammatical mistake, an opinion that angers or an issue not covered.

None of this includes the write-in campaigns, which this year hit close to 4,000 e-mails. One recent organized outrage concerned an article by Vanessa Gera, an Associated Press correspondent in Warsaw. It was about the Polish president condemning the racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacist views of some of the 60,000 people who marched on Poland's Independence Day.

Even though President Andrzej Duda clearly spoke out against this display of fascism and racism, the letter campaign writers decried press coverage that, they argue, leads worldwide audiences to "dislike Poland and Poles, creating negative stereotypes…" The campaigners may not like the coverage, but it is entirely necessary to shine a very strong light on white nationalism wherever it happens.

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These campaigns aside, the e-mails I receive help inform and shape the paper's coverage, and hold The Globe to its standards. The readers' role in maintaining fair and accurate media cannot be overstated.

Facebook to build site informing users of Russian propaganda accounts (Reuters)
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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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