Journalists are operating in an environment unlike anything they’ve faced before. Fact-based reporting is under assault from public officials who call journalists the enemy of the people. Audiences, more connected through technology, have more exposure to misinformation and propaganda.
Most journalists are trained, thoughtful professionals who have spent whole careers trying to get at the truth. They are fact-centric, eschew propaganda and strive for fairness. They employ professional judgment and informed choices every day to decide what to put in their stories, guided by sets of ethics established by publications and their own standards.
But new technologies changing the way information is distributed are challenging those ethics. Some of the guideposts we have used in the past, when news organizations were considered primary, go-to sources for facts, are outdated for the modern age. Newsrooms are wrestling with these changes, some more successfully than others.
It’s a time rich with contradictions. The phrase “fake news” is used repeatedly by the U.S. president and other leaders — not to shine a light on misinformation, but to castigate journalists who write something these politicians disagree with.
We know more than ever about about our earth, our health, our brains and other scientific pursuits. Yet at the same time science is under attack — climate change, vaccinations and health information are among the flashpoints.
Conspiracy theories are proliferating online, even as credible information is easier to find. There are more fact-checkers than ever, yet the numbers show politicians more inclined to repeat things they know are falsehoods.
The proliferation of misinformation means readers can find justification for whatever they want to believe. So if an individual’s truth is whatever they want it to be, does it matter what the politicians or the experts say?
In the networked age, accountability journalism is harder than ever.
At API, we’re interested in finding ways that journalists and other truth-tellers can navigate this environment. There are a variety of new strategies being advocated about how to help convey to readers what’s really happening in their communities and how their institutions of government, business and education are performing. There is also new research on how audiences process information.
These ideas will be at the heart of a summit API will convene in Arlington Va. on June 6 and 7, “Truth-Telling in the Modern Age: Strategies to Confront Polarization and Misinformation,” an effort made possible with a grant from the Craig Newmark Philanthropies to expand on API’S efforts to promote ethical reporting and help journalists produce trustworthy work. This work is one of an ongoing series of thought-leader summits focused on topics of importance in the current journalism landscape.
Some of the techniques we will be discussing are proffered by experts in media, cognition and sociology, some by journalists themselves and others will no doubt emanate from conversations like this one.
Among the strategies we will discuss are tactics like “strategic silence,” the idea that part of a news organization’s job is to avoid repeating falsehoods or misleading information, even if to debunk it. Others have recommended “truth sandwiches” — encasing a falsehood between two hearty slices of the truth so readers get the message loud and clear.
One question is whether, in our effort to simplify complex issues for busy readers, we have gone too far. Should we be “complicating the narratives,” as author Amanda Ripley has proposed, as part of an effort to help readers see the whole picture?
Approaches like these can inform every decision reporters and editors make — in building the newsroom’s beat structure, deciding how individual stories are crafted, making word choices in headlines and stories, promoting the story on social media. And all are driven by assumptions about how stories will be received by their target audiences. But are those assumptions correct?
The event will include thoughtful discussion from newsrooms large and small, as well as relevant scholars, providing a rare moment for the practical and the theoretical to come together, share their work and to even challenge one another.
In smaller groups, we’ll also discuss individual challenges that some organization are tackling. Can we write about immigration in a way that helps everyone understand it — immigrants and those angered by it? Should we be focusing on more fundamental problems with democracy that drive people to their corners in the first place? How can we manage the inherent tension between the need to be first and getting it right? Should we be employing empathy with those who might be inclined to believe falsehoods, rather than suggesting they somehow “fell for it.”
After the event, API will publish at least three papers on these topics, with the intention of providing journalists with new ways of thinking about how they deliver the truth at a time when audiences are both increasingly polarized and awash in misinformation.
At a time of high distrust of media, we see an urgency to this discussion about how news organizations can regain their footing as authoritative voices for their communities and sources for the most reliable information.