There’s no sugar-coating it, real journalism is in real trouble

Remember that picture of Pope Francis wearing a blindingly white—and super fly—puffer coat earlier this year? Did you think it was real when you first saw it? I did, and I was dismayed at just how easily I’d been duped.

In my defence, it seemed entirely plausible that the most powerful figure in the Catholic religion would wear such a coat. I mean, even a Pontiff has to stay warm. Which is, of course, what made the deception even more plausible. It’s not like he was pictured doing bong rips or something.

Ultimately, the fake image was benign. A harmless bit of fun that made the social media rounds for a couple of days. But it was also a warning about how some ill-intentioned people with just a modicum of AI knowledge could quite easily cause havoc.

We’ve used this space before to talk about journalism and why it’s imperative for advertisers and their agencies to be more mindful of the information that is being propped up by the budgets. Yes, journalists tend to be navel-gazers when it comes to their profession, but it’s also because credible journalism is such a crucial bulwark against misinformation.

And it’s becoming clear that the constant barrage of AI-generated images and manipulated audio and video is beginning to erode the public’s trust even more. That’s underscored by a worrisome new study by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

According to the CJF, half of Canadians say they’re not confident in their ability to distinguish between human produced content and fake news generated by AI. In addition, 58% of Canadians believe they have personally encountered misleading or false online information generated by AI in the past six months.

Now, imagine how this might be magnified if Google were to follow Meta’s lead in Canada by blocking links from bona fide news outlets in its search results. With potentially only trickery and untruths getting through, it could enable misinformation to flourish in unimaginable ways.

The ongoing conflict in Gaza is a perfect example of just how easily the “truth” can be manipulated. According to a recent report in The Telegraph, one-fifth of social media accounts engaging in discussion about the conflict are fake, with an estimated 30,000 fake accounts on X actively spreading pro-Hamas disinformation.

Meanwhile, a Reuters report last week said that a “disinformation surge” threatens to fuel the conflict. It quoted Rafi Mendelsoh, VP of an Israeli bot-monitoring firm called Cyabra, who said that more than 40,000 fake accounts are pushing pro-Hamas narratives online.

CFJ president and executive director Natalie Turvey said that the organization’s findings underscore the need for media literacy training. But from our vantage point, it also demonstrates the desperate need for more mindful advertising investment.

Unfortunately, the idea of what constitutes the “truth” has become slippery in our highly partisan world, where too many of us prefer to listen only what is being said by those in our own echo chambers. The concept of “fake news” is now being used interchangeably as a way of describing both actual misinformation and unflattering—but ultimately real—news.

It’s almost impossible to agree anymore on what the “facts” of a story actually are. They have become the news equivalent of “the dress,” although the ramifications for our society are significantly more profound.

We’re banging the drum on this one because we have access to an audience that is uniquely positioned to bring about real change in the fight against willful and harmful misinformation. From where we sit, advertisers and their agencies have a moral imperative to ensure they’re supporting quality journalism.

The alternative is far more insidious and potentially ruinous than a picture of a religious leader wearing a stylish coat.

Chris Powell