Exaggerated Headlines. Biased Coverage. Downright Fake.

Misinformation is *the* challenge of a generation of comms professionals. It's as harmful as it is prevalent. Here are some reminders on exercising critical thinking, and determining angles of media - and non-media - outputs right now.


Let's get straight to it.

Misinformation is the challenge of a generation. For business leaders and entire brands. For shareholders and policy officers. For comms professionals and publicists. And for everyone in between.

The rise of social media has paved a not-so-pretty path for headlines that are, shall we say, less than reliable? And we're not just talking about fake news. We're talking about the grey area of ambiguity - content out of context, smear campaigns skewing public narrative, purchased opinions and manipulated imagery.

Here are some reminders on exercising critical thinking and supporting your target audience to to do the same.

1. The Basics.

Name spelling. Strange looking URLs. Grammatical errors. Poor proofing. Incorrect dates. We're talking bare minimum here. Falsified information will present you with all the evidence you need to know it's less than reliable. You simply need to take a second look.

Special mention to AI-created content, too. If it sounds... not quite human, it probably isn't, and there's a reason for that. For all its benefits and capabilities, AI can be used as a quick and cheap alternative to creating real content with real facts checked by real people.


2. Familiarise Yourself With Potential Biases.

To state the obvious: almost all major news outlets are skewed towards a specific political sentiment, usually because of ownership, investment or editors. Same goes for social accounts - even those which may seem external to the topic at hand. Where social media is concerned, anything can be anyone's jurisdiction.

Of course, it's well within users' prerogative to read and share at their leisure. But that's not to say a subject won't be presented in a certain light - and it's not always an accurate one. And for brands and professionals, in particular, this can lead to very sticky, very public situations.


3. Sensationalism Sells.

Does the headline sound particularly inflammatory? Does it include personal jabs or information outside of what appears applicable? Smear campaigns often include highly emotive materials to sway public opinion, and angle even the most innocuous content to fit the overriding intention.

A big indicator is if an article raises historical matters that no longer feel relevant to the conversation at hand. Or, if new "findings" suddenly emerge that could drastically shift public opinion. It can be a grey area, so it's worth a healthy dose of scepticism.


4. Rising Opinions.

The line isn't as defined as we'd like to think between cold, hard facts, and personal views - even if it appears so. In times of change, you may see more Op.Eds. or forewords penned by senior editors or Editors-in-Chief. You may also notice more bylines from big brand CEOs and founders.

It's worth noting that this isn't always a negative, and certainly byline contributions are hugely valuable and newsworthy. But if content appears to heavily lobby for a certain cause or individual without a balanced argument, it may be more than it seems.


5. Data Quality in Reporting.

We all love a few facts and figures to back-up our arguments. It's one of the first rules in content marketing, and supports all manner of PR activity. But data pools can be narrowly focused; research may be funded by a certain organisation; aspects of findings can be hidden away.

All in all, the ability to miscommunicate data findings to relay a specific message has become far too simple. For example, there's a big difference between the statements "20% of under 30s are at risk of redundancy" and "20% of under 30s *say they feel* at risk of redundancy". An important nuance.


Bonus: KPIs & Targets Are Universal.

Media doesn't report for free. Just like every other brand with a digital platform, they have objectives to achieve. Senior leader reading a finance-centric paper, or voter scrolling headlines on socials, you are providing another impression, click-through, share and metric.

This means that a headline which sounds click-bait-y, photos shot at a convenient moment, percentiles or quotes taken out of context may not always be prioritising journalism or education.


A little word of measure: fake news isn't exactly new. It's [probably] been around since the dawn of storytelling. But the emergence of vastly greater information-share has transitioned chit-chat on the street corner, to chit-chat amongst millions upon millions of people around the globe, and in an unrealistic setting.

If you've never read a news clipping from the 19th century, take this as your sign to do so. Not least because it'll give you a good chuckle, but because it'll make you ask how people could believe that.

You get the point.

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