The concept of “fake news” is gaining popularity, but the line between the real and the fake has never been clear. When a piece of news represents the reality in general but with minor flaws, such as some non-essential inaccuracies, selective exposures or by spinning the story towards a particular conclusion, can it be classified as fake news? An experienced editor or a journalism professor would probably feel the word “fake” is too reductive to capture the complexity in journalistic practices. However, what they would resent more is accepting it as “not fake,” given harms brought about by such “minor” flaws could be even more dangerous.
A recent news case provides us with a good example to illustrate the grey area between the fake and the real.
On January 23, 2021, as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Hong Kong government announced that some neighbourhoods near Jordan Road in Kowloon would be sealed off. Any person who was in the “restricted area” should stay within their premises and undergo compulsory testing in compliance with the government’s arrangements and regulations. People living in the area were asked to stay at home until everyone in the restricted area has been tested.
While the abovementioned regulations came into effect for the first time, journalists from various Hong Kong media outlets entered and stayed at hotels within the “restricted area” to produce on-site witnessing reports. A journalist representing RTHK, the sole public service broadcaster in Hong Kong, released a report including a photo of the government’s food supplies for people in the area. Five packs of instant noodles, a bag of macaroni, four cans of food and a box of kernel corn are displayed in the photo with his comment “the hotel does not provide can openers or any tools for cooking or boiling.” There was a similar post on the South China Morning Post (SCMP)’s Facebook page, titled “Lockdown residents given food they either cannot eat or cannot open.” The original picture with some cans upside down does not show the ring pulls on the top of the cans. The post reads “he (the resident) lacked the means to open them, as he does not own a can opener.”
A Summary of the Event
The Hong Kong government responded to media inquiries through its official Facebook page, Tamar Talk, “In terms of canned food, the vast majority (about 80%) are designed with a ‘ring pull’ and only a small percentage of food needs to be opened with a can opener.” The post also stated that various kinds of food were being provided for people with different preferences and needs.
These reports have ignited a fierce public debate in Hong Kong. Some accused the reports were misleading and were produced with deliberateness and partisanship. Some considered they had respected the factuality and objectivity of journalistic professionalism.
SCMP subsequently issued an official apology for the misleading content and changed the cover image of the report.
Nevertheless, several fact-check reports have been released in regards to the event, confirming the relevant photos and reports respect the truth.
Comprehensive reporting in journalistic professionalism
This case manifested the relevance of journalistic practices, namely comprehensiveness, neutrality, and objectivity in the discussion of news being true or false. The report of RTHK highlighted the journalist’s experience as a guest staying in a neighbourhood hotel, supported with a photo of the food supplied to him, which is factual if seen in pieces. However, when they are read in entirety, the factual pieces may generate a fabricated interpretation. Several questions should be considered.
First of all, is the absence of contextual information problematic? The distribution of supplies amidst the regional lockdown is the first emergency action taken by the government during the pandemic. According to the government’s Facebook post, about 20% of the 8000 cans needed a can opener to be opened. Without background information, the selective attention makes it difficult to generate a fair conclusion about the life condition of the locked-down areas.
Second, can detailed facts lie? In RTHK’s report, cans were positioned in a way that the sides with the pull ring were hidden and in the SCMP’s report the cans were shown upside down, both of which do not allow the audience to judge whether can openers are necessary. The reports might also easily mislead a rush reader into the conclusion that “all cans cannot be opened.” The photos are not artificial but they are arguably lying. In addition, the food supplies are distributed to the community residents who should have tools at home to open cans and cook food. The journalist’s experience as a hotel guest, which though might be factual, is not a typical one. Its selective magnitude is suspicious.
Moreover, what is the role of a witnessing journalist? A journalist on the site of the event is to help the audience fully understand what is going on there. In this case, if the journalist genuinely questioned the potential difficulties caused by the food cans, did they check out possible solutions or government measures?
The Challenge of Fact-checking
Despite many fact-check reports being issued, concerning this event, it is a significant question worth a second thought: can a “true or false” verdict be universally applied to every fact-checking claim?
Even though a journalist must always remain objective, theories have discussed its impossibility in news products. Being human, journalists can neither be comprehensive nor be completely objective. What journalists can do is to form a reasonable narrative which is the best explanation they can draw from different aspects of a fact they collect. Nevertheless, being objective in attitude and collecting as many detailed information as possible is still the best way to produce news stories closest to truth.
In the existing mechanism for fact-checking, the checking process involves the judgement on the factuality of news stories as true or false. Nonetheless, in some cases, such dichotomous result is not able to reflect a holistic presentation of the factuality. In other words, the fact that only one aspect of the news event is interpreted truthfully is not equal to the holistic accuracy of the reporting. Reporting some aspects of a fact while missing some others will lead to a wrong explanation, if not totally fake.
Implications of Fact-checking
The controversy surrounding food supplies during the lockdown in Hong Kong demonstrates the limitations of the dichotomy of “true or false” verdict in fact-checking. Some purported fake news is just deficient in comprehensive reporting. They cannot be classified merely as true or false, but may contain flaws in objectivity, comprehensiveness or neutrality in the way they have been reported.
Although fact-checking can verify the authenticity of certain aspects of “interpretation” of a news in question, it may neglect other aspects which are fundamental in revealing the truth, thus, undermining the credibility of the fact-checking process. The method and scope of fact-checking are worth further discussion and improvement, such as investigating the interpretation of different aspects of a news event and the presentation of their relational and contextual information. Such insights also place a higher demand on professionalism in journalistic practices: how to integrate different aspects of key information properly to formulate a holistic news presentation, with the attempt to report objectively, truthfully, comprehensively, and neutrally.