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28 January 2020

Frank Harbers is perfectly aware of the dangers of fake news, but its influence in the Netherlands still seems to be rather limited. And according to Harbers, it would set a dangerous precedent if a government were to start regulating news coverage. ‘If a government starts to decide what is and what isn’t fake news, that would take you down the path towards censorship.’

Text: Annemieke van der Kolk, Communication Office / Photos: Daniël Houben

Fake news

The assistant professor of journalism hurries back from a lecture, making his way through the corridors of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Groningen. Quickly and inconspicuously, he moves some papers out of the way and starts to talk passionately about developments in journalism, with fake news being one of the most recent – although the phenomenon has been around for centuries. How dangerous is fake news? ‘It could become more of a problem, but at the moment we consume such a diverse range of media every day that it doesn't really have a huge impact on our view of the world.’ And yet, we fall for it regularly. How is that possible? ‘Fake news makes very clever use of familiar visual and textual characteristics such as citing sources. And if what is being said is also in line with our view of the world, it seems more plausible.’

Too trusting

Are there any positives to fake news? Does it make us more critical, perhaps? ‘Fake news makes it painfully clear that we are too quick to trust information that is presented in a particular way. It’s always good to think about what is being said and what that is based on. We would do well to be a little more critical in that respect. We need to teach people how to do that – children and young people, but also adults. You could say that that is a positive side-effect of fake news, that media literacy and digital literacy receive more attention.’

No role for the government

Harbers rejects the suggestion that the government should play a role in this. Initiatives such as the EU fact-check project are set up with good intentions, but can be dangerous, he warns. ‘Not only does it encourage abuse, but it also starts to look a bit like censorship. Just think about the question: what is fake news? Does that include propaganda, or satire, or strong political news? If a government is given the power to decide what is or isn’t fake news, that makes people feel – justifiably – uncomfortable. I don’t think that’s the way.’

'My conclusion is that objectivity is under pressure.'
'My conclusion is that objectivity is under pressure.'

Earn trust

According to Harbers, the key to a solution lies partly in education. If people are media savvy and know enough about how news is produced, they are better able to debunk fabrications. But journalistic organizations and individual journalists have also been given a new responsibility. ‘They need to demonstrate more clearly how they do their work and why they make certain choices. Journalist and writer Joris Luyendijk played an important role in this at the beginning of this century with his book ‘Hello Everybody’ (Het zijn net mensen). There needs to be more interaction with the public – and I don’t just mean adding a comments section under articles. That already happens. Journalists have to maintain and earn that trust on a daily basis. People used to be loyal to a certain established medium, but now there are so many competing media channels. They have to reveal their identity and demonstrate to the world what they stand for journalistically.’

Objectivity under pressure

At the same time, a broader discussion about objectivity is raging in the Netherlands, which became the norm in journalism after the Second World War. ‘The discussion revolves around the question as to whether objectivity is still a feasible ideal and whether that conceals the subjectivity that always lingers under the surface anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to establish a form of transparency about this, such as committed journalism, whereby a journalist reports from an engaged perspective and is also open about this?’ Harbers shows in his PhD thesis that new ideas about reporting hark back to journalistic practices that prevailed at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. In those days, it was common for a reporter at the scene to be openly subjective in his account of events. ‘My conclusion is that objectivity is under pressure. Alternatives such as narrative or opinion-forming journalism now seem to be becoming increasingly prominent.’

Blue riband

Having graduated in Dutch Literature, Harbers is most fascinated by what he calls (with a wink) the ‘blue riband genre of journalism’; reporting. ‘This is where everything comes together. I am particularly interested in real narrative journalism because it describes specific themes and events on a tangible, human level.’ Harbers looks up towards his bookshelf, his gaze lands on ‘Rosa Lee’ by Leon Dash. ‘I’ve just read that book with my Master’s students. It’s about a journalist who spent a number of years with an Afro-American woman and her seven children from the socio-economic lower class, in a family which had many problems with drugs, crime and prostitution. The author wanted to find out why some people manage to break out of such an environment and others don’t. His narrative approach allowed him to produce a nuanced analysis that did justice to the complexity of that question. It’s very impressive.’

Hope for the future?

On the bookshelf I also spot a few copies of the recently published book ‘De krant. Een cultuurgeschiedenis’ (The paper: A cultural history), which was edited by Harbers and his colleague Huub Wijfjes. It describes the 400-year of history of this mass medium that seems to be struggling with the arrival of competing new media. But according to Harbers, the newspaper still has a future, because there will always be a need for news, analysis and interpretation. ‘And perhaps also a need for information to be bundled together in a certain way. I don’t know exactly what form that will take. It might not even be a print paper.’ So there is still hope for the good old newspaper in the new media landscape after all.
Last modified:21 April 2020 3.07 p.m.
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