PUBLIC POV: Why Brands Should Care About Press Freedom

For the third year in a row, global press freedom is on a downward trend. Last week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released their annual ranking of global press freedom, with Canada rising to the number 18 spot, and the United States trailing at number 45 out of 180 countries. Despite constitutional protections intended to bolster journalistic freedom in Canada and the United States, media workers in these countries face challenges from “fake news” to anti-press rhetoric that get in the way of fair and accurate reporting.

Although Canada has gained four spots since last year (largely due to protection of journalistic sources), the overall global press picture isn’t ideal.

We live in an era of unprecedented access to information and disruptive forces. Newsrooms are shrinking, as media outlets attempt to find their place in a time of uncertainty. This leaves news consumers with fewer sources that present the facts of a story. In addition, the rise of credible outlets being labelled as “fake news”, and bogus stories labelled has journalism has only fuelled the press freedom crisis. As PUBLIC’s Dan Dunsky once argued: ordinary individuals are caught between the digital disruptors of the future and the familiar institutions of the past. The result? An increasing mistrust of both.

Free and fair journalism provides the opportunity for all of us to evaluate the facts, consider them carefully, and then make up our own minds about a given story. For this reason, the decline in press freedom should concern us as individuals. But, as the line between citizen and consumer blurs, brands have also started to take notice.

As recently as 2014, observers opined that a free press might not be able to survive in a brand-driven world. Today’s conversation around the relationship between business and the media has changed. Since the beginning of 2018, brands such as Virgin, Sacai, and Etudes all demonstrated support of quality journalism when other institutions and even governments seemed less inclined to do so.

In January, the President of the United States announced “Fake News Awards” via social media to delegitimize reportage that reflected poorly on his administration. Meanwhile, Virgin Trains banned and then restocked the Daily Mail from its trains for what Virgin deemed to be irresponsible reporting. Fashion brands Sacai and Etudes took a different approach by teaming up with the New York Times (NYT) to create a fashion line in support of a free press. The clothing displays lines from the NYT advertising campaign “The Truth is Hard”.

While these brands are wading into a complex issue, freedom of the press is a topic that will only continue to impact brands and their consumer base. Here are a few reasons why it’s in the best interests of business to combat the rise of “fake news” and champion a free press.

CONSUMER EXPECTATIONS

As the political and social landscape has changed, so too have consumer expectations. Consumers increasingly expect brands to be transparent, authentic and to weigh in on political issues. Similarly, 50 per cent of employees at America’s largest companies feel their CEO should be more vocal on important societal issues.

In order for brands to live up to these consumer and employee expectations, a free press must be in place. CEOs and politicians alike are held to account through honest and accurate journalism. A truthful account of a business, and the industry in which it operates is necessary for brands to be transparent. Journalists provide a crucial third-party role to facilitate a brand’s transparency and authenticity.

A prime example of employee expectations shaping decision-making is Virgin Train’s decision to ban the Daily Mail from its trains. After hearing employees report concern around “the Mail’s position on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment,” Virgin Trains took action. The company has since decided to reverse its decision after further feedback suggesting the ban is a form of censorship. CEO Richard Branson wrote that “freedom of speech, freedom of choice and tolerance for differing views” were the core reasons he reversed the decision.

Virgin took a stand on a nuanced issue, and then revised its position only months later. It’s an interesting case study showing the importance of transparency and aligning social impact with brand values.

THE RISE OF FAKE NEWS

Brands should also be concerned about the decline of press freedom as this leaves room for more fake news stories to be produced and shared online. Misinformation can spread quickly and once a story goes viral, your business could be at risk.

No one understands this more than Shrina Begum.

Begum, owner of an Indian restaurant in London U.K., received multiple phone calls in May 2017 with angry patrons asking why she used human meat in her dishes. After some investigation, Begum found that this lie came from a fake news story published on Channel23news.com. The piece reported her restaurant (Karri Twist) was caught selling human meat and that the owner had been arrested. Despite countless spelling errors, and a banner that read ‘you’ve been pranked,’ to the right of the text, this fake news article almost cost Begum her business. Despite over six decades of serving her community, one fake article caused Begum to lose patrons, cut staff, and cancel planned renovations.

This example might seem outlandish, but when a free press isn’t supported and defended, it leaves room for scammers to promote fake stories and profit from it. Misleading news has real implications for a brand’s reputation and the bottom line.

If freedom of the real press is not supported, the next generation of news consumers will not be able to discern the difference between a bogus story and the truth. Brands have an obvious stake in making sure their business’ story is represented fairly and accurately in the media.

UNINTENDED SPREAD OF MISINFORMATION

Further complicating matters, tech giants from Facebook to twitter are a primary source of news for many individuals. Pew Research indicates that at least 67 per cent of U.S. adults obtain their news from social media feeds. With a click of a button, users can share a variety of stories with a network of friends who trust their judgement.

Given that these platforms are much more capable of skewing to prejudices, and function based on the user’s preferred content, the sharing of made-up stories is much more likely. Perhaps most importantly, these platforms take revenue away from traditional media outlets (sources with journalistic standards of truth and transparency). Social media platforms are businesses that act in their own best interests, rather than consistently ensuring the accuracy of the content shared through their channels, despite more recent efforts to put in basic safeguards in place.

So what does this mean for your organization? If your business has a social media presence, it’s important to ensure your business is not inadvertently spreading misinformation by sharing a misleading or fake news article through your channels.

A free press increases the quality of reporting and could reduce the amount that inaccurate information circulates online. It’s all too easy to slip up and share a piece that is polished, but inaccurate. Sharing false information can associate your brand with non-credible sources and, in turn, impact consumer and shareholder trust.

As the state of journalism continues to evolve, it will be important for brands to take notice, and where appropriate, take action to support a free and fair press. After all, good business decisions depend upon accurate information; and the relationship between brand and consumer is built upon the truth.

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