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Bennett and Clemmow speak at Lyon about “fake news”

BATESVILLE, Ark.—In a convocation speech at Lyon College, Jana Bennett and her husband Richard Clemmow delivered stories from their own careers in journalism. They discussed the importance of accuracy in telling stories for both the producer and consumer.

Bennett and Clemmow met while working together on the BBC show “Newsnight,”comparable to ABC’s “Nightline.” Their paths diverged, but recently, Clemmow said, their careers have come closer together.

Clemmow says the latest chapter, “took us back to the United States and the excitement of New York City. I’ve been making scripted dramas for radio based on true stories, and Jana went on to run the History Channel, where she commissioned scripted and unscripted shows founded in history and contemporary real events.”

While working together on “Newsnight,”Bennett and Clemmow covered the “Hitler Diaries.” The story involved a German forger who created fake diaries that allegedly belonged to Adolf Hitler; Clemmow explained that as young journalists, he and Bennett learned the lesson of “be[ing] sure of [the] sources and [not] letting [the] excitement over a story get in the way of checking it out until you are completely satisfied about its authenticity.”

Some stories really are just too good to be true,” he said.

Bennett and Clemmow discussed other stories that involved misleading the public such as “Crowngate,” a video that put together two shots of footage of Queen Elizabeth II that implied an untrue meaning, and the anti-Dukakis ads pushed by George H.W. Bush’s campaign during the 1998 U.S. Presidential election. It implied that Bush’s opponent Dukakis was soft on crime and personally responsible for several murderers being released from prison.

Bennett and Clemmow explained both stories are examples of the misrepresentation of fact: the first showed the damage that a false impression of events can do, even if not deliberate; the Dukakis ad showed the powerful nature of ‘spin’ in politics, and how public opinion can be manipulated by distorting the facts.  In both cases, the trust between the media and the public breaks down.

Bennett left news to run the BBC’s Science and Features; while there, she learned to develop her own stories and pitch them.  

Bennett explained how she became interested in producing “scripted dramas based on fact,” including the difficulties of working with scientists and the fear of oversimplifying information.

“Being the science department,” Bennett said, “we were very rigorous about how we treated facts.”

In 2000, when working for TLC, Bennett developed the show “Trading Spaces” for the channel. Before “Trading Spaces,” TLC primarily featured formulaic DIY shows. She said she sought to bring veracity, life, and emotion to the American public with her new show.

It featured “unexpected things going wrong, design ideas, and sometimes tears and emotions and joy!” according to Bennett. The unscripted nature of the show was important to Bennett; accordingly, she instructed the film crews to “capture genuine emotion, real feelings while avoiding instruction.” If a person came back to see “their favourite room painted purple,” the “tears,” “joy,” and “surprise” would have to be genuine.

Following this brief history of their “varied experience” in the media, Bennett spoke directly to the title of the talk: “Facts, Fictions, and Fakes.” Together, they addressed today’s “ever-hotter crisis of trust in the media, in an era of so-called ‘fake news.’” Bennett asserted that this is true not just of the U.S., but also of Britain.

“The question of fact and fiction and the relation between the two is everywhere,” she said.

Clemmow added, “Many people think that standards and practices have slipped in the era of wall-to-wall cable news and social media, where the boundaries between reportage and opinion are sometimes, some would say frequently, blurred. The problem is much of what we consume as news, what is labeled news every day, is really opinion masquerading as news.”

Clemmow said that this blurring of fact and fiction, as well as the fact that networks take “varying positions along the political spectrum” has led to what is called the “bubble effect.”

Individuals, by way of television, radio, newspapers, or social media, can cherry-pick what news, or more accurately, what opinion, they want to expose themselves to. This effect, Clemmow said, “increase[es] polarization” by “screening out alternative points of view.”