Need to Know: December 18, 2018

Fresh useful insights for people advancing quality, innovative and sustainable journalism


You might have heardNew report on Russian disinformation, prepared for the Senate, shows the operation’s scale and sweep (The Washington Post)

But did you know: Instagram was bigger Russian election tool than Facebook, Senate report says (Bloomberg)

Facebook-owned Instagram played a much bigger role in Russia’s manipulation of U.S. voters than the company has previously discussed, and will be a key Russian tool in the 2020 elections, according to a report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Russian Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that has sought to divide Americans with misinformation and meme content around the 2016 election, received more engagement on Instagram than it did on any other social media platform, including Facebook, researchers found. “Instagram was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony,” the report says. IRA activity shifted there after the media began to write about Russian activity on Twitter and Facebook. “Our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis.”

+ Noted: As NewsMatch issues call to action to support journalism, funders step up (Medium, Jason Alcorn); Los Angeles Times to launch prime-time TV show “L.A. Times Today” (Los Angeles Times); Fox News is taking a membership approach to its new subscription service (Digiday); Ex-CBS CEO Les Moonves will not receive $120 million in severance pay after sexual misconduct probe (CNBC)


10 things we learned in 2018 (and how they can help your newsroom) (Center for Media Engagement)

The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement rounds up some of the most helpful research findings for journalists in 2018. Did you know, for example, that using images next to links and placing links at the bottom of articles (rather than in the middle) helps keep readers on your site? Or that positive images and issue-focused headlines increase Facebook reactions and comments on political stories? Or that online quizzes can spark readers’ interest in news and politics, and can help expand and retain your audience? This round-up also looks at some important revelations for the news industry in the last year: that online harassment of female journalists is a global problem, using the term “fake news” can confuse and further alienate readers, and — a positive finding — newsrooms wield a special ability to help bridge ideological divides in their communities.


How do you make fact-checking viral? Make it look like misinformation. (Poynter)

The most effective misinformation is packaged for virality: It’s visual, adapted to mobile devices, light to share and easy to consume. The Spanish fact-checking outlet Maldito Bulo decided to copy this format during the Spanish election last December to see if it helped make facts spread as easily as lies. The experiment worked: An image created by the team debunking an election-related hoax was shared over 8,400 times on Twitter, reached over 287,000 people on Facebook and was picked up by other media, who called for comment on TV and radio broadcasts. Other debunking posts created by Maldito Bulo for social media saw similar results. “While these examples relate to the Catalonian crisis, the lessons have held since,” writes co-founder Clara Jiménez Cruz. “Our debunks continue to do well on Twitter.”


Using science fiction to inspire breakthrough thinking (Harvard Business Review)

The late novelist Ursula Le Guin once said she wrote science fiction to dislodge her mind — and her reader’s mind — “from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live.” Science fiction can be so effective at helping people overcome mental ruts that many companies have it used it to visualize new futures for their businesses. At Lowe’s, this approach got the executive team members to understand how they could revolutionize retail with augmented reality, robotics, and other technologies. Consultants working with Lowe’s gave customer and technology data to a panel of science fiction writers and asked them to imagine what Lowe’s might look like in five to 10 years. They then gathered their ideas, and integrated and refined the stories. As a result of that project, Lowe’s created several new products and process changes that earned it the number-one spot in augmented reality on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list.


New research suggests journalists should defend their profession (Journalist’s Resource)

At a time when the news media is routinely under public attack, journalists generally take one of two tacks: ignore it or defend themselves. But new research suggests that the latter approach might be better for fostering faith in journalism. A study from Louisiana State University found that readers were more likely to trust the media when they were shown opinion pieces defending journalism next to other news stories. Researchers found that fact-checking stories and opinion pieces that defended journalism did not, when presented alone, impact readers’ trust. But when study participants saw both, there was a small but significant positive effect. “The big takeaway is that it’s actually good to speak up in defense of the profession,” said the study’s lead author and media professor Ray Pingree. Pingree allowed that while the study does not account for the potential real-world consequences of journalists defending their profession more frequently, “…Whatever journalists do, they’re going to be called biased, so they might as well try.”

+ It’s high time for media to enter the No Kellyanne Zone — and stay there (The Washington Post)


The state of climate change coverage (Columbia Journalism Review)

Whether you’re a climate reporter or just a concerned citizen, the last few months were a tumultuous time for climate news. Two bombshell reports warned of dire consequences if significant efforts are not made to reverse global warming within the next decade. “Yet most news organizations have historically fallen into the trap of relegating … major scientific breakthroughs or environmental warnings to… well, turn page one over,” writes Daniel Hentz. Analyzing climate change coverage over the last two months, Hentz found that while some explainer journalists are doing a good job of maintaining the climate conversation when hard news begins to veer away, there is still more work to do to generate sustainable dialogue on the issue. “It’s our responsibility as storytellers to digest and parcel out every scrap of detail from these reports for the reader,” Hentz writes, “so that we can affect the change necessary to avoid having those somewhat sexy disaster stories down the road.”

+ Related: When a major weather event occurs, people are paying above-average attention to online news in the local area of the threat. Does this increased attention correlate to an increase in attention for global warming? Not according to data on online search trends from But journalists could consider connecting the dots for people who are already searching for information about weather events with search-optimized reporting about global warming. (

+ This Twitter thread rounds up some of the best local watchdog reporting of 2018 (Twitter, @joey_cranney)