Five things we’ve learned from our own ‘fake news’ story

I ran into our new press officer last night. She was hungry.

“All I’ve managed to eat today has been a Snickers bar,” she said.

It had been a busy old day.

Not only were we hosting a general election debate while trying to find students to be interviewed for a TV news bulletin on the poll, we were also at the centre of our own little media storm.

Our film production students have to complete an assessment which requires them to produce a video that goes stratospherically viral. The more views on social media platforms, the better. And it doesn’t matter too much if the content has been staged.

And that’s the problem.

Which journalist wouldn’t want to do a story about a student who files a vital essay on the dot of midnight from a noisy nightclub, having been dragged out by his friends against his will. And then gets a first for it?

That was the story put out by the Press Association agency – one whose byword is fast accuracy – this week.

Except none of that happened. Because the footage was concocted as part of that project, with the business school student playing a role.

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As the story fell to pieces yesterday afternoon, it struck me there were a few lessons to be learned.

PA’s checks may not be as rigorous as they once were

Shortly after the film actor Christopher Lee died two years ago, I met someone who worked for the Press Association. I was impressed – if a little amazed – to hear that PA refused to put out a story about his demise until its Hollywood reporter had seen a copy of the death certificate.

The initial story here was based on – admittedly protracted – conversations with two students on Facebook. I haven’t got a problem with that at all. But why PA didn’t put in a call to the university press office is completely beyond me. The implication was that you could get a first for a piece of work you submit at the last minute from a noisy, drink-soaked nightclub. Wouldn’t you want a comment on that?

If that had happened, PA wouldn’t have been left with egg on its face.

Our students are REALLY good at sticking to a script

Leaving aside the video-making creativity that went into this, I’m also slightly in awe of their ability to stay in character. It might have been better for the uni if they hadn’t, and – as our head of media school Anne Dawson has said – we don’t condone lying to the press.

They still don’t regard Facebook as a trusted source

I’m fascinated by the fact that people regarded as living their lives on social media still don’t regard it as a source to be trusted, or a way of verifying information.  I’m not sure where that leaves us. What form of communication would have persuaded them to step out of character and tell the real truth? What is verification?

‘A lie can get round the world before the truth has put its boots on.’

That comment – probably from Jonathan Swift – has never been more appropriate. This is the sort of story that journalists want to be true – and there’ll be some outlets who won’t want to go to the hassle of changing their original versions. It was – and remains – difficult for our press office to put the genie back into the bottle.

EVERYONE now knows about the Uni of Gloucestershire

I’m incredibly proud to work here. But our profile isn’t the highest, and a lot of potential students have never heard of us. I don’t believe that all publicity is good publicity. But getting our name in front of teenagers won’t do us any harm at all.

That’s my view. Here’s a very different one from my friend Tom Gibbon, head of web at Gloucestershire Live.

 

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