By Aisling McCarthy

What is circular reporting?

Circular reporting is where a piece of information appears to come from numerous sources, but, in fact, comes only from a single source. This is often the way in which fake news in spread.

Circular reporting can occur when, for example, publication A puts out a piece of false information and publication B reprints it. Publication A then cites B as the source of the original information. It is also considered to be a form of circular reporting when multiple publications all report from the same piece of false information. This information then appears, to another author, to be verified by multiple authors. This can make the tracing of sources nearly impossible. Satirical articles are also mistakenly picked up and published as factual.

In a TED Talks video, Noah Tavlin explains that the need for instant gratification can hinder the search for truth. People would rather know information instantly, instead of ensuring the certainty of the facts.

“Our desire for quick answers may overpower the desire to be certain of their validity.”

Who does circular reporting affect?

Journalists, media houses and information consumers are all affected by circular reporting and fake news. Journalists are required to be increasingly aware that cited information may not, necessarily, be true and, in order to avoid being discredited, media houses must ensure the information they publish is correct. To stop the spread of fake news, consumers also need to take matters into their own hands and ensure information is correct before sharing it.

Ylva Rodny-Gumede, head of journalism at the University of Johannesburg, says that it is not only journalists who struggle with circular reporting.

“Academics talk about these things as well, because, with circular reporting, the more corroborated a piece of information, the harder it is to find the original source. It’s not a simple problem, but it’s not a new problem either.”

Websites that contain high levels of user-generated content, such as Wikipedia, have been widely criticised for contributing to the cycle of circular reporting. If a user publishes a piece of information on Wikipedia, and a journalist uses that information in a published article, the initial user who published the information on Wikipedia can then cite the article as the source of information – making a false piece of information seem true.

As more writers come to rely on such quick information, an unverified fact on a wiki-page can easily make its way into a published article – which may then be later used as a citation for the very same wiki-page. This makes it much harder to debunk false information.

Fighting the spread

Stopping the spread of fake news involves ensuring the integrity of the information you use, cite or share. Anim van Wyk, editor of the fact-checking organisation Africa Check, says that the problem with circular reporting is that it completely erodes the trust that consumers have in journalists.

“If you use Google and see various media houses reporting the same story, it is not unreasonable to believe it must be true, especially if you’re a journalist chasing a deadline. Unfortunately, this creates an echo chamber effect, in which one journalist repeats another and another.”

Rodny-Gumede says that the way forward is to work according to what she calls a ‘journalism of scaling back’, where facts and sources are triple checked and if the source does not seem fully credible, the story should not be run.

She further explains that the demand for information drives journalists to be highly competitive, which can lead to the spreading of fake news, for want of not missing out on a story.

“I think we are under so much pressure in the 24-hour news cycle that sometimes we think ‘you know what, it’s better to run with it than to let the story go to the competition’. If we go back in time [before 24-hour news], news people used to say ‘you know what, actually we’ll sit this story out – we’d rather be right and let the competition be proven wrong’. I think there is very little of that today.”

Van Wyk says that although Wikipedia can be a good starting point to get to grips with a subject, it should never be used as a source or quoted as such. He says that contacting sources directly is always the best way forward.

“Being aware of the problem of circular news is step number one. Step two is asking for the evidence that shows something is true. Step three is to verify this evidence.”

The way forward

In order to stop the cycle of circular reporting, journalists, content producers and media consumers need to be more aware of the information they receive and call out others when they publish fake news.

Van Wyk says that the rise in fake news and circular reporting offers traditional media an opportunity to do what they have always done best, “Head out with a notebook and pen, dig below the surface and make sense of the confusion.”

Rodny-Gumede echoes this sentiment, saying that although the media landscape has changed and that the internet lends itself to the spread of fake news, this also offers journalists an opportunity to evolve.

“[Fake news] is a whole industry of its own, but then it’s an industry we can counter with growing our own in the name of investigative journalism. It’s a whole new investigative journalism that has to develop.”

She further explains that in order to crack down on fake news, a greater level of media literacy is necessary.

“Our schooling isn’t necessarily conducive to an idea of how careful you need to be with source verification and to understand who we can trust.”

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