A Conversation about fake news that we need to have 

Misha Ketchell

Anyone looking for evidence that public discourse can’t handle complex ideas need look no further than the rapid demise of the term ‘fake news’ in 2017.

After the 2016 US presidential election, BuzzFeed journalist Craig Silverman investigated a wave of demonstrably false stories about Hillary Clinton that circulated during the campaign.

He discovered that many of these stories had been produced by a small group of teenagers in Macedonia who had figured out there was money to be made by feeding the more fantastical beliefs of the alt-right. Silverman coined the term ‘fake news’ to describe these stories. It referred specifically to articles made up by people who knew they were false.

For a nanosecond the words ‘fake news’ accurately described an abhorrent development in public life. Then Donald Trump co-opted the term to attack media outlets, such as CNN and the New York Times, whose reporting he disliked. ‘Fake news’ morphed into a term of derision, casting a fog of confusion and tainting all media outlets with unreliability.

If you’ll indulge on America for just a moment longer, the journalist Kurt Anderson recently wrote a terrific article in The Atlantic describing his country’s unique and longstanding preference for fantasy over reality. ‘How America lost its mind’ is a rigorous history of American magical thinking that ends with a call for ‘new protocols for media hygiene’ and a grassroots movement ‘that insists on distinguishing between the factually true and the blatantly false’.

‘Fake news’ morphed into a term of derision, casting a fog of confusion and tainting all media outlets with unreliability.

The Conversation is a global network of media websites that has been in the vanguard of such a movement since it was launched in Melbourne in 2011. Its mission is to work with academics and researchers to provide reliable information to a broad public, based on the premise that just as clean water is vital for health, clean information is essential for healthy democracy.


It now operates in the UK, US, France, Africa, Canada, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia. It is now read by more than 5.8 million users a month directly and more than 35 million via re-publication of its articles on other media websites.

The funding relationship and independence
The Conversation is funded by universities, readers and foundations so its newsworthy articles can be provided free to those who need them most.

It is an organization well placed to work with philanthropists. It adopts policies and processes that ensure funding relationships are transparent. Every academic author has to disclose all relevant sources of funding.

The Conversation also prominently acknowledges its university and philanthropic funders, both to give credit where it is due and to make it clear to readers we have nothing to hide.

As others in this issue have pointed out, a crucial issue in philanthropic funding of media is the distinction between financial dependence and editorial independence. Editorial policies create a clear boundary between funders and the editorial decision-making process. A detailed profile also lists each academic’s publications and qualifications so readers can assess for themselves the academic’s expertise.

The Conversation also prominently acknowledges its university and philanthropic funders, both to give credit where it is due and to make it clear to readers we have nothing to hide.

Working closely with many foundations and universities, this brand of quality journalism provides essential context to help people make sense of a complex and confusing barrage of information. Along the way it aims to help political leaders make better decisions and provide essential insights into our environment, our culture and our history.

One day it might even help put an end to fake news – however you define it.

Misha Ketchell is editor, The Conversation Australia. Email misha.ketchell@theconversation.edu.au


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