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Warren Fernandez: Countering fake news is everyone's duty

22 Feb 2018

“The fake starts to look more real, and the real starts to look more fake.”

This statement from Warren Fernandez, Editor of The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), kicked off an enlightening talk about the tricky state of media and information in today’s society. Addressing a group of 80 students and faculty members at SIM HQ in December last year, Fernandez spoke about the insidious prevalence of ‘fake news’, and shared his views about the role of both the media and the individual in combating the situation.

Mr Fernandez emphasised that it is important for societies to have a reliable, factual flow of information and highlighted the collaborative efforts that SPH has with educational institutions and community partners to raise awareness about the rise of fake news. 

The evening’s proceedings were conducted as part of SIM International Affairs Society’s (IAS) annual Public Lecture Series. After the talk, a student from IAS sat down with Fernandez for a one-to-one chat. 

Here are excerpts from the interview.

IAS: With fake news permeating our surroundings and social vernacular, how much attention should we give to discussing fake news and why?

Warren Fernandez (WF): …it’s something that we are giving attention to because there is so much of it out there. Whether you like it or not, fake news comes at you… To give you an example, when the lightning struck the MRT train earlier this November, we got a picture of it… we had to ask whether it was real because it could’ve easily been fabricated. When the environment has changed, our natural skepticism has to be raised.

IAS: Considering that there is only so much air time and blocs in the newsroom, how do you balance the responsibility of debunking fake news with your duty to report the daily news?

WF: We try to be a source of news that people feel they can trust. Whatever we put out, we try very hard to make sure that it is accurate, and that we have more than one source that is balanced. This requires a lot of energy and so we don’t, then, have a lot of time to chase every bit of fake news… Some people say why don’t we set up a whole team just to look at fake news? Well, that would take up too much resources. The whole newsroom is my team and what we do is we verify and check. That’s just part of the journalistic process. 

IAS: Collectively, how can the traditional news media provide an accurate and just worldview to its audience? 

WF: There is this big tension between wanting to be accurate, fair, balanced... and wanting to be fast. Because you can’t take forever to verify, the vacuum would be filled. I tell (our reporters) that we want to be first with the accurate news. If it means that we take a bit longer to verify, so be it. For a news organisation, you trade on trust and reputation. And as soon as you tarnish your reputation, you’ve lost your currency to trade. You have to work very hard to safeguard that reputation.

IAS: You mentioned in the talk that governments shouldn’t be the first buffer against fake news. Perhaps a newspaper’s reputation should precede that. How can we then help individuals to discern information from reputable sources? 

WF: It comes back to the need to stay informed. The more informed you are, (the more) you’ll then have the ability to say ‘That can’t be true because of these other bits of information.’ If you’re completely clueless, you’re more vulnerable and more gullible.

Individuals have the responsibility to arm themselves with information to sort out fake news. News organisations will try but we cannot replicate nor can we replace the individual’s ability to do so. 

IAS: That’s interesting, can you elaborate on three traits that readers should arm themselves with when they look for news? 

WF: Curiosity, skepticism, and patience. For patience, don’t be too quick to just hit that share button, send a response, or vent in the first instance. Take time to think about what you’re going to say.

Mr Fernandez reminded all present that as individuals, we can play a part in identifying and fighting fake news.

This article was adapted from the original article which appeared in The Capital, a student publication of IAS. Click here for the full article. 

To watch the lecture in whole, visit the IAS’ Facebook page here

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