Voters get information about candidates, issues and the mechanics of their elections from an increasingly vast media ecosystem that includes conventional media, partisan media, social media and even outright “fake news” sites. As contradictory messages proliferate, it can be hard for people to know what, exactly, is true. What should legitimate news outlets do in response?
API has begun building a real-time network of newsroom leaders, civic and academic institutions and outside experts who will communicate throughout the 2020 election to combat misinformation and other threats to election integrity, like voter suppression or ballot manipulation. Our members include print, television, radio, and digital-only newsrooms in urban and rural areas, as well as experts from across the country.
The network will feature strategies and lessons that news organizations and others have learned from experience about how misinformation moves and how to cover it, the most likely kinds of manipulation attempts, and the unique challenges involved in covering the security and accessibility of the November balloting.
If you’d like to join the network, you can express your interest by completing this short form or by sending us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We anticipate a broad discussion, responsive to member needs, that will occur both virtually and in person, with four interconnected focus areas:
Journalists familiar with the types, actors, tactics and spread of misinformation will be better positioned to respond than those journalists trying to identify issues on the fly.
Many social media manipulations will focus on falsehoods about the candidates but some – such as misleading information about the scheduling of actual events like protests or rallies – will more cynically be designed to get people to change their behavior. Methods may include publishing stories from web sites that do not follow ethical journalistic practices, circulating memes that suggest falsehoods with a wink and a nod, or presenting manipulated photos and videos or real images and footage taken out of context.
People in swing states are likely targets of falsehoods about the candidates, as they were in 2016 through nefarious social media campaigns that promoted Donald Trump and disparaged Hillary Clinton and hacked Democratic party documents. Experts expect similar efforts this year – and also new ones, some of it home-grown. An example is selectively edited video, designed to show deficiencies in a candidate’s health and mental capacity, or taking old videos and deceptively editing them.
How can local newsrooms – which often don’t have the benefit of large teams of fact-checkers or forensic verification teams – keep up? And when should they even bother?
Here’s some ways the collaborative intends to help:
- We will create a simple-to-follow summary of resources and experts available on these issues.
- We will arrange discussions and training with experts about key topics, like how to verify information online or how to build trust with your audience.
- We will connect journalists with others who have experienced and covered misinformation and related issues to share their learning and build capacity across the network.
- We will support real-time exchange among members to flag for one another what they are seeing in their regions, as an early warning about misinformers’ methods and tactics.
- We will assess strategies to support the likeliest targets of disinformation and online attacks, including especially women, communities of color, immigrant communities, rural communities, and journalists themselves.
Focusing on information voters need
The information needs of voters are as diverse as the electorate itself. Critics have long complained that journalists put disproportionate effort into horse-race coverage, prioritizing one information need at the expense of others. Data suggests the horse race coverage is especially engaging for those heavily invested in politics but confusing for others. As the less politically-engaged tune out, a vacuum emerges that misinformation often fills.
Thankfully, there are other ways to engage more voters and meet their information needs.
The “citizens agenda” approach, promoted by the journalism consultancy Hearken with help from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and Trusting News, centers on voters by asking them directly what issues they care about and what they want to know about the candidates and policies under discussion. Voters, rather than candidates and political consultants, set the reporting agenda.
Another strategy confronts both the perception and realities of political polarization in America to identify the nuance in what Americans value. The Hidden Common Ground initiative from the USA TODAY Network and Public Agenda is engaging Americans to discuss points of agreement in policy and public life. The Complicating the Narratives effort from the Solutions Journalism Network meanwhile asks journalists to explore our differences more deeply and amplify nuances to avoid simplistic framing of problems and possible solutions. Both efforts seek to help Americans see their values and positions reflected in our political narratives, making them more likely to invest their attention.
Other information needs include understanding the mechanics of voting, voting infrastructure, or the ins and outs of policy. We’ll explore the ways these approaches can intersect to engage audiences and fill data voids that might otherwise allow mis- and disinformation to take hold.
Covering the challenges of voting
Before it happened 20 years ago, journalists didn’t anticipate an election so close – and so fraught with uncertainty – that the U.S. Supreme Court would end up effectively deciding the winner. Nowadays, problems with voting apps or other electronic balloting methods are likely to cause problems, and those, too, are hard to anticipate in advance.
That’s not to say newsrooms should figure out the most unlikely scenario and plan for it, but journalists who generally anticipate the kinds of problems with the mechanics of an election are more likely to be prepared to offer their readers a fulsome, if inconclusive, account of what happened.
We also know the potential for news organizations to help one another detect and cover problems at polling places. A leader in that space is ProPublica, whose ElectionLand project covers barriers that prevent eligible people from voting, often in real-time so that they can be addressed before the polls close.
In addition, we are connecting news leaders with experts and groups advocating for free and fair elections, including the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which study and advocate for voting rights.
Meanwhile, nefarious actors try to disrupt the actual voting process by spreading misinformation about the rules or timetables surrounding voting, creating confusion about when and where to vote, the eligibility requirements and the rules or logistics of the process. They also seek to undermine trust in the process and in the officials running it.
We will also discuss the related issue of how journalists should cover allegations of voter fraud, which the Brennan Center says is actually very rare, despite claims by politicians that recent elections were tainted by people voting illegally. That is another case where we see journalists gaining knowledge and insights from one another as well as from the experts we are bringing together.
Collaborating with other news organizations
Local newsrooms across the country are facing the prospect of covering the 2020 elections with fewer reporting resources than in any election in recent history. And yet, misinformation, targeted disinformation, and other campaigns to manipulate and suppress voters is projected to be worse than ever, especially in areas and among communities where newsrooms have pulled back their coverage or never had strong trust in the first place. To address this and other gaps, journalists are increasingly turning to collaborations — with other journalists, with experts and with their audiences and communities.
Public media newsrooms have launched the “America Amplified” collaborative, leveraging community engagement to direct limited reporting resources toward the issues most important to the public.
The Your Voice Ohio collaborative of more than 50 broadcast, print, and online newsrooms will deploy its community dialogue model and digital engagement tools across Ohio to listen to voters discuss their top issues and offer solutions to add nuance to election reporting.
Newsrooms in North Carolina, meanwhile, are flexing their collaborative muscles. McClatchy journalists visited every county in the state to listen to voters for their “Journey Across the 100” initiative. The North Carolina News Collaborative, formed last year, is exploring issues key to North Carolinians, including the rural/urban divide that animates the state’s political landscape.
This willingness to work together, listen deeply to their audiences and communities, and share reporting resources puts journalists in a stronger position to respond to misinformation and election integrity issues as they arise. Through our network, we’ll explore ways of collaborating to address misinformation and lift up the collaboratives already underway.
We’d love to have you join us. What other issues are you paying attention to this year? What strategies are you using to combat them? If you’re interested in participating in the network, would like to learn more, or want to share an idea, express your interest by completing this short form or send us a note at email@example.com.