Whether it’s a clever marketing message or deliberate disinformation, the written word can lull us into a sense of false security or catapult us into panic. As information flies around the world at breakneck speed on social media and other platforms, words rain relentlessly down on us. Yet as consumers of information, how do we know what information is real and what is fake? How do we know when to trust what we read?
Real versus fake
Disinformation is false information that is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organisation to a rival power, or the media. Spin, on the other hand, is the presentation of information in a particular way; a slant, especially a favourable one (Oxford English Dictionary). If we read something that challenges our beliefs or values, or that has been challenged or rejected by someone in power, the information is not necessarily fake. Choosing not to believe certain information doesn’t make that information wrong.
Whether we are writing on behalf of a corporation, government agency or small-to-medium enterprise, we have an obligation to provide quality, truthful information to our clients and the public. Failure to do so will erode our readers’ trust in the information and by extension in us.
With disinformation and fake news on the rise, what can we do as organisations to give our readers confidence that the content we generate is trustworthy?
Speed versus accuracy
Writing a thorough, well-researched and correct communication will involve careful checking of facts and other content. If this process is rushed, mistakes inevitably slip through. Yet in many organisations, the pressure to release a report, publish a message on social media or update a website 'now', allows little or no time for careful checking. When every communication becomes a priority to be ‘pushed through’ as fast as possible, regardless of whether this speed is actually necessary, we need to stop and ask ‘Is it worth the risk?’
For example, in an annual report, a fact or figure may appear in more than one section of the report. Do these facts and figures match or are they slightly different? In my consultancy's editing and proofreading work, we often find these kinds of discrepancies. Although they are more often a symptom of several team members working on the same report, these discrepancies can raise doubt in readers’ minds. Clients, potential clients and the public may not only lose trust in your organisation, they may even believe you are fabricating the facts or figures.
Truth versus spin
You can put a positive spin on any communication. We have seen many examples of this recently from Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison. He has asserted that Australia is making a responsible and achievable contribution to global climate change action and has urged young people in particular not to get over anxious about the issue.
Yet several analyses, including one from the government, have found that Australia is unlikely to meet even its existing target made in Paris. Other eminent figures, like former Australian Chief Scientist Dr Penny Sackett and natural historian Sir David Attenborough, have painted a very different picture to Morrison’s message that Australia’s response to climate change is on track. Which message do we believe?
The power of words
It is possible to write a broad or aspirational statement in a convincing way to make it sound like fact. Yet under scrutiny, it simply becomes a collection of words, however convincing they may appear on the surface. Statements backed up by facts from a reputable or credible source will be far more convincing to your reader than unsubstantiated broad statements or blatant exaggerations. Compare the following examples:
Noname Agency has led the way with a significant reduction in carbon emissions. This is equivalent to tens of thousands of cars off the road for a year.*
Concrete statement backed by reputable sources:
Noname Agency has reduced and offset its carbon emissions by 210,000 tonnes. According to the Australian Government's Green Vehicle Guide, this reduction is the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road for a year. (For further information refer to the 2017−18 Public Disclosure Summary).*
*These are fictitious examples.
As writers, we have the power to choose from any number of words and put them together in a variety of ways. We can deliberately mislead, incite fear, or apply a positive spin to lessen the impact of an otherwise negative message. Or we can present quality, fact-checked information as objectively as possible.
Whether we are writing for the media, social media or on behalf or a company or the government, we need to take the time to compose our words carefully. To build credibility and engender trust, we need to write clearly, using correct grammar and spelling and correct facts.