Way back in the spring of 2015 — long before false accusations of massive voter fraud and pizza-shop sex rings and before the Facebook fake-news beatdown — about 10,000 people were asked this question in a survey from the American Press Institute:
“What do you think are the biggest challenges facing journalism in general today?”
The No. 1 answer: False information on the internet.
The respondents weren’t just any random 10,000 people. They all were graduates of journalism and communications schools throughout the U.S. over the past few decades. In answering that question, they could have chosen one of nine other serious challenges including failing business models and media ownership monopolies.
But they didn’t. They were far more apprehensive about the growing misinformation that surrounds and sometimes obliterates their own professional, well-reported content. They were clearly concerned about what the proliferation of false information could mean for journalism, and, by extension, the knowledge base of internet users.
Journalism knew. But what did journalism do?
In some newsrooms during this election, journalists tried to stomp on the flames by ramping up their political fact-checking efforts. No question, this election featured more fact-checking than any election in history; massive, non-stop, nearly heroic fact-checking. It was the Olympics of fact-checking.
But while there might be a Pulitzer or two, journalism did not win these games.
The flood of false information now has busted the dikes. Every glossary of fake news sites is outdated the minute it’s published, as more sites are constantly created. The president-elect of the United States tweets misinformation and then calls journalists “dishonest.” You’re lucky if you find a post-election story that doesn’t lament a “post-fact era.” False information has incited confusion and even danger.
In the weeks since the November election, I’ve heard from a group of free-lance science writers who want to help teach kids how to identify fakery. I’ve gotten an invitation from a diverse collection of D.C.-area folks who want to start what sounds like a fake-news vigilante posse. Even Facebook announced some potentially useful actions this week.
Here’s what’s happening over in the journalism industry, however: Columnists and op-ed writers around the country have published essays about “post-truth” politicians and the tragically misinformed public. They’ve lectured people about how to spot fake news. They’ve alternately blamed journalism and its corporate owners, teachers, teen-aged boys in Macedonia, and society in general. There’s also been a bit of “I told you so” about the evils of social media content distribution.
But there’s been barely a peep from newsrooms about any substantial, innovative or even basic actions they’re taking to try to protect the true news industry from the fake one. (By the way, the response, “We’ll just continue to tell the truth” is the job, not an innovative plan of action.)
So what’s going on here?
Certainly, there’s a decent amount of post-election shock-related inertia in newsrooms, combined with some “not-my-job” thinking. But primarily, we’re seeing two other reasons:
- Industry-wide, an organizational structure that lacks a mechanism for any massive, successful, cohesive action. What’s the process for brainstorming ideas to address any problem in the journalism industry? And even if there were such a process, how would you get to the next step: implementing, promoting and marketing those ideas? Journalism historically has been more cerebral than solutions-oriented, and traditionally dismissive of strategic promotion of their work.
- The crushing workload in many individual newsrooms where journalists are doing the jobs of two or more people. How can anyone try to address big-picture problems while struggling to deliver a daily product, knowing that the next day brings another chance for a layoff or a restructuring?
Still, as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said recently to a room full of journalists: “Bad things do happen, as we all know, when good people do nothing.”
It’s tempting for at-risk newsrooms to hunker down in the hidey-hole. Don’t do it.
What can journalists and newsroom leaders do to combat the problem of misinformation and fake news? Though I’ve been unnaturally immersed in the world of fact-checking and accountability journalism for the past two years, I can’t give a universal answer to that question: Each community, each news organization, each topic is unique in its relationship to misinformation. Each newsroom needs to examine potential actions and agree on worthwhile experiments that might work for their individual audiences.
Below are a few thoughts to get that brainstorming underway. But first, let me emphasize this: Local news organizations should not cede this effort to Big Media.
With layoffs always lurking, yes, it’s tempting for at-risk newsrooms to hunker down in the hidey-hole. Don’t do it. Be aggressive. Be bold. Do things you haven’t done; step out of the “it’s what we always do” mindset. It’s quite possible these efforts will have a positive impact on your news organization’s bottom line.
Some ideas to consider:
- What are the topics and policies that confound your communities? Figure that out through town hall meetings, surveys, focus groups, even story comments. Then check your metrics to see how those issues align with the stories you’re actually assigning and writing, and adjust your coverage accordingly.
- Ask readers/viewers to come along with you, in some creative way, as you investigate and report a significant story. Get some ideas for your news organization from the Serial podcasts, this Dallas television station’s ridealong program, and the New York Times plan to cover the fatal Oakland fire.
- Don’t stop the fact-checking efforts you started for Election 2016. There are four years until the next election. Get your audience hooked on fact-checking; strive to make it an integral, trusted function of journalism. By the 2020 election cycle, fact-checking should be completely normalized, not an election-year pounce that resembles a B-movie we’ll call “The Attack of the Accountability Journalists.“
- More study, more learning. I would like to see universities create a journalism course or curriculum— let’s call it misinformatics — that examines the trek and impact of fake news and false information on the internet. A more basic misinformatics course can be taught at the K-12 level. (And while we’re at it, let’s teach the kids how to do a decent Google search.)
By 2020, fact-checking should be completely normalized, not an election-year pounce that resembles a B-movie we’ll call “The Attack of the Accountability Journalists.“
- Stop the “Pinterest meetings”! Recently I saw a tweet from a reporter who said browsing Pinterest helped her get through boring local government meetings. The question, of course, is why waste time in meetings that are more useless than a tutorial on how to cut toast? To find time for new efforts, think about what you can stop doing in your newsroom.
- Approach your state’s press club or national media professionals group to talk about hiring smart marketers who can create a campaign that highlights responsible, responsive journalism.
- Look into what the First Draft Coalition is doing to fight fake news and educate audiences, and how you might be part of that.
- Don’t make truly avoidable mistakes. Now more than ever, do your due diligence before publishing stories like this. This is not a big ask; it’s the most basic function of journalism.
CNN contributor Salena Zito said recently on the network’s “Reliable Sources” program that there’s a silver lining in the election-fueled anti-journalism fallout. Constant criticism of the press “forces people to watch us,” Zito said. That “higher platform,” as Zito said, makes the media more visible.
Photos: Flickr Creative Commons