I was living in the United Kingdom during the summer of Murdoch—summer 2011. The News of the World scandal consumed television news outlets, newspapers, and dinner conversations. At the time, I was working as a freelance writer while dreaming of one day working as a journalist, and I was astounded by the news. Rupert Murdoch's employees were accused of attempted bribery and hacking into voicemail accounts, deleting important messages, and a slew of other crimes.
As it turns out, News of the World wasn’t the only news outlet guilty of entirely disregarding journalistic boundaries in order to get a good story, and it certainly isn't the only reason many readers refuse to trust the media. There is always more where that came from, and unethical journalism shouldn't be our only concern. Consider astroturfing, for example.
A relatively new concept in online marketing is astroturfing—“the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists,” according to Adam Beinkov of The Guardian.
Astroturfing is more common than you’d think. It has been used in such a wide range of industries—from ad agencies astroturfing government educational app reviews to members of the oil industry using Twitter to pose as environmentalists and promote big oil’s agenda.
With all this talk of unethical journalism, astroturfing, and companies (and whole industries) promoting their agenda at any cost, it might seem like there is no one left whom we, as readers, can trust. Still, this doesn’t mean there is no trustworthy news or advertising agency left. It merely means that we must be more careful about what we believe.
So, what can we do about all this?
Journalism is evolving, and with this evolution comes a whole new set of problems. If journalists are willing to risk jail time and a total loss of credibility to report (political agendas disguised as) news articles; and if so many companies use astroturfing to promote their products, we must find the facts for ourselves.
As future journalists, public relations executives, and communications experts, we must always consider our ethical values and training before writing about causes in which we believe. Simply put (and I know this should not have to be stated) don’t accept money to promote a cause, no matter how important it is to you.
As readers of the news and online forums, we must do our own research. Always be skeptical of online reviews and forum comments. Question the validity of everything you read; dig as deeply into the subject as possible; and trust your instincts more than you trust a Facebook post. There is no need to lose faith in everything we read, but there is a definite need to confirm that what we read is the truth before we click 'share'.