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New report on online rumors critical of media’s role in spreading misinformation

A new report on misinformation in media is critical of the role journalists play in spreading misinformation, either by carelessly repeating it or purposely ignoring it.

Craig Silverman

Craig Silverman

“Lies spread much farther than the truth, and news organizations play a powerful role in making this happen,” says Craig Silverman, a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and author of the report, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.”

The report is an analysis of over 1,500 news articles written about more than 100 online rumors between August-December 2014. The study, released Tuesday, was funded by The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In his report, Silverman criticizes the lack of effort by some journalists to prove or disprove popular online rumors — some of which are actually promoted on the news site as a way to gain page views.

“News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors,” says Silverman, who is the founder of the “Regret the Error” blog that reports on media errors, accuracy and verification.

“Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.”

Many of the report’s findings reflect poorly on fact-checking behavior by reporters and editors. For example: simply relying on hyperlinks to authenticate facts, not following up on viral stories after publishing, and writing headlines designed to make the reader think an unverified story is true.

Those actions also make journalists easy marks for “hoaxsters” who strive to get their fake stories published on legitimate news sites, says Silverman, who tracks online rumors through his site, Emergent.

Importantly, says Silverman, news organizations that generally have higher standards also need to do more than simply ignore viral, false content. And in media organizations in general, more journalists need to be dedicated to fact-checking, and, when necessary, debunking viral content.

Silverman offers several steps and recommendations — based on his own studies and other research experiments — for newsrooms to “stop the bad practices that lead to misinforming and misleading the public.”  You can download the full report here.

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