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How fact-checkers will respond to new challenges: Some solutions

Although much of the summit discussion centered on challenges facing fact-checkers during the 2016 election and aftermath, people remained optimistic that the enterprise as a whole could meet those challenges. The fact that the summit itself was taking place and that fact-checkers are willing, in a sense, to fact check themselves is “tremendously admirable,” Kahan said. “There are too many professions that don’t step back and try to get evidence about whether they’re doing things right,” he said.

Stites, the Banyan Tree leader, said he had come to the summit harboring some doubts but had grown optimistic that fact-checking was ready and willing to evolve. For about a decade, fact-checking has grown and become an integral part of journalism; but, he suggested, it hasn’t changed much. “Here,” he said, “fact-checking 2.0 is happening.”

Summit participants proposed and discussed some responses to fact-checking’s issues. Here is a summary of ideas, which we hope accountability and fact-checking journalists and media managers will consider as we move ahead.

1. Greater use of technology

Fact-checkers and academics at the summit discussed the need to “inoculate” against fake news before it goes viral. Tim Franklin, president of the Poynter Institute, noted that Facebook is working with fact-checkers and using the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles to help sort out the verified from the fake.

A few weeks before the 2016 election, Google added a “fact-checked” label to its Google News results to help highlight stories that had been vetted by journalists.

And fact-checkers can do more to elevate their content in such contexts, said one participant with a technology background. “Fact-checkers can get in on the ground floor, before people have hardened positions,” he said. “A bundle of facts can help inoculate them.”

Tools such as schema.org can mark up content in ways that machines can read it and recognize it as having been fact-checked. Other hallmarks of quality content can be highlighted: the use of primary sources, a rigorous corrections policy, the use of eyewitness quotes.

But stopping fake content before it goes viral remains an intense challenge. Even when fact-checked stories are marked as such, the reality is that contemporary news consumption means many people see nothing more than an image or a headline — and a second order of effort is required to get them to read a fact check about the material.

In addition, more research is needed about how audiences use technology and tools such as search engines, suggested Nikki Usher Layser, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “Partisan reinforcement and the spread of misinformation is really necessary to consider,” she said.

2. Fact check issues, not claims

Fact-checkers face increasingly tricky and persistent challenges in reaching both partisan and disinterested audiences. Partisans are disinclined to accept negative conclusions about statements made by politicians they support. Passive and disinterested audiences are disinclined to pay attention to a fact-check of a bit of a statement made by a politician or government leader they may have never encountered. A potential solution to effectively reaching both of these groups is to turn the current structure of fact-checking upside-down: Fact check topics and issues, not one part of one individual’s statement.

In other words, think about the context and purpose of the claim being made. What is the point and the underlying concept of the false claim? Going beyond the “he lied/she lied” claim-checking model will help emphasize larger ideas rather than small details, and will help create knowledge rather than inciting partisan backlash. What are the essential points citizens need to know to understand the key issues in their town and nationwide? What are the common misperceptions about those issues? Statements by political actors may be in the mix, but the frame is the truth about an issue.

3. The costs and benefits of speed

Some experts says it’s best for fact-checking to happen in real time, but it’s also proven difficult for broadcasters to do it effectively. Simply asserting that an official said something that wasn’t true during a live broadcast isn’t necessarily convincing. But having correct information handy to point out the specifics about why a claim is false requires considerable preparation and resources and is difficult to pull off in real time in a convincing and compelling way — although more effort is being expended in this direction.

The need for greater speed in bringing fact checks closer in time to false claims being made was explored by a working group at the conference. NPR’s effort at annotating transcripts of major news events online as they happen, such as presidential debates, was viewed as a success story. Fact-checkers are experimenting with bots and other Internet tools that find and rate claims instantly — a kind of missile defense system that can intercept false claims as soon as they’re launched. “We were able to serve our viewers and readers by being faster at what we did,” said Jessica Arp, the political reporter with WISC-TV.

On the other hand, “instant” fact checks may not always be the most convincing. David Mikkelson, the publisher of Snopes.com, said readers can wonder how debunking can be produced so quickly after reaching the Internet. And, as Duke University’s Mark Stencel found, instantaneous fact checks during a tense debate can cause instant and tense reactions from partisan viewers.

As fact-checkers continue to get faster, however, what may be just as important as checking claims as immediately as possible is a mode of “acceleration” — finding ways to incorporate fact checks into people’s regular news consumption behavior. Not everyone watches speeches or events unfold in real time, so getting fact checks to them as they encounter news as part of their regular routines is an important challenge to address and potentially more effective than real-time checks.

A working group at the fact-checking summit created a template to help make fact-checks more visible.

4. Increasing transparency and trust

The summit also included discussions about whether people are isolating themselves in echo chambers and choosing media that is either exclusively conservative or liberal in viewpoint. Kelly Garrett, a professor of communication at Ohio State University, noted “quantifiable evidence” that such echo chambers don’t exist, that people who use Facebook or other social media sites as a source of news are not less accurate in their understanding of contemporary events.

“It’s not that they haven’t heard you,” Garrett told the assembled fact-checkers. “They just don’t believe you.”

People aren’t always interested in broadening their media menu, whether it’s a question of subject matter or pursuing different viewpoints. For example, attempts by one media organization to get people to click on conservative stories after they’ve read liberal ones or vice versa — what one participant called a “horse to water thing” — haven’t worked.

Before making progress in the effort to broaden the audience for fact-checking, “we have to build that foundation of trust,” said Jane Elizabeth, senior manager for the accountability journalism program at the American Press Institute. How can that be done?

Summit participants had several suggestions, discussing the need to increase transparency and engage more with both readers and critics.

It’s not that they haven’t heard you. They just don’t believe you.

And it’s crucial that reporters back up their assertions with carefully vetted sources, said Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute. It’s not enough to simply state that a politician had gotten her facts mixed up. “At a time of no trust in the media, why would the voter trust the [fact-checker] over the politician he or she supported?” Mantzarlis asked.

Attendees also debated whether it would be best to drop the traditional journalistic cloak of objectivity, letting audiences know where a fact-checker stands politically, for instance, so they can make an informed choice from the media menu. This is not always a particularly popular option among journalists, and it’s complicated by the definition of “transparency.” The public may see transparency as knowing such things as whether reporters own guns or attend church regularly or give donations to interest groups.

While fact-checkers as a whole have achieved greater mastery of both topic selection and their methodology, that hasn’t automatically translated into increased trust. Fact-checkers can’t assume, however carefully crafted their product, that it will be received as some sort of holy writ. Other steps must accompany that high-quality fact-checking, summit attendees said, and discussed some steps:

  • Engage with subjects or readers who strongly disagree with their findings.
  • Share with their audience information about why they’re checking claims. How was the claim selected? Did a large number of readers and viewers request a check, for example?
  • Take questions or ask for suggestions via Facebook Live or other tools.
  • Monitor and explain the partisan breakdown of the sources of claims that they check.
  • Explain why certain sources of information, such as statistics from government agencies, are seen as more reliable than others.
  • Bring diverse organizations together to check important claims, providing assurance that a variety of fact-checkers agree on the substance behind a controversial topic.
  • Create a database of verified facts, housed by a neutral source and available for the public to share and analyze. Work along this line is already being done by the Internet Archive, which is linking fact-checks by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker to video clips of statements made by public officials as contained in its searchable TV News Archive.

A summit working group proposed ways to increase transparency in fact-checking.

 

5. Connecting with new audiences

Fact-checks are generally presented using a standard model: A claim is rehashed and given context, background information is provided about the issue, an accuracy assessment is given along with a brief explanation of that truth ranking. But several participants discussed the need to rethink the design of fact checks, so that their main points are presented in a more compelling way.

And connecting with new audiences just might mean starting over from scratch: not only tearing up the prevailing fact-check presentation model, but rethinking the ways in which readers and viewers want to engage. It also means thinking long and hard about what kind of audience is open to the concept of fact-checking and how best to reach them.

Starting with the idea of the reader first in mind is paramount, suggested Michelle Ye Hee Lee, a fact-checker for The Washington Post. Visualize the actual reader — especially the ones who are being missed, whether due to technological change or their distrust of media outlets.

As mentioned earlier, a large universe of readers and viewers isn’t being reached — not only partisan voters who are skeptical about media, but non-voters who are not engaging fully in civic life.

Even when fact checks reach a larger audience, that audience is skewed — geographically, with more readers on the coasts than in the South or heartland; and ideologically, with progressives more likely to engage. Readers who most engage with fact checks tend to be Democrats who already have above-average knowledge about politics, research indicates. “We’re doing a terrible job as a group, getting our information to the people who could most benefit from it,” said Rebecca Ianucci, a project manager at the Duke Reporters’ Lab who’s working on fact-checking studies and research.

Even when fact checks reach a larger audience, that audience is skewed.

A working group at the summit identified two main categories of readers and viewers that fact-checkers need to do a better job of reaching. The first group was described as younger, digitally savvy and eager for information provided in novel formats. The other consumes more news through older methods, such as print and television, and is harder to reach not because of platform preferences but because of trust issues.

Ideas for reaching the second group were more analog. Partnerships with conservative outlets would also go some way toward reassuring conservative voters about the merits of fact-checking. Correct information, not necessarily labeled as a fact check, can be offered through collaborations with radio talk show hosts for discussion. “An important tactic going forward will be finding ways to bring fact-checking to people in neutral packages,” said the Banyan Project’s Stites.

One promising model that’s been put into practice was described by David Schechter, a senior reporter at WFAA-TV. The Dallas station has taken citizens on the road who ask their own questions and experience what the reporters and producers experience. The audience comes along for the ride and may reach a different conclusion, but during long segments they get a sense that this deputized reporter has seen everything the professionals have seen.

“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Schechter said, citing renewed faith in the facts as presented and high levels of engagement. It’s a way of putting a face on information, he noted, finding real-life examples and anecdotes to explain facts and tell stories.

“The more we can make fact-checking about trying to help you tell right from wrong, the more trust people will have,” Arp said.

Could a new design increase the impact of fact checks? A summit group explored that question.

 

6. Developing new formats

The need for finding new formats was much discussed at the summit, including better use of graphics and visual aids to make their information more accessible; considering shorter writing that doesn’t get lost in the weeds; making sources more visible; and taking advantage of all social media platforms.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee of The Washington Post noted that each Friday leading up to the 2016 election, she and her colleagues broadcast findings from the week on Facebook Live. And, she added, fact checks had among the highest engagement of any of the news organization’s offerings on Snapchat. These non-traditional tools were a way of presenting information where readers and viewers live, not waiting for them to navigate their way through a website.

But, Lee noted, fact-checks that are presented primarily in visual platforms like Snapchat may be limited to topics that are already fairly well-known and thus don’t require much in the way of explanation. On Snapchat, an in-depth discussion about claims, counterclaims and sources is not possible.

These non-traditional tools were a way of presenting information where readers and viewers live, not waiting for them to navigate their way through a website.

GIFs, Instagram Stories and Twitter Moments are other ways of presenting information through new channels. Digital-only fact checks on platforms such as Facebook have become more common. Other efforts are already underway, such a “Share the Facts” app for Alexa, Amazon’s home assistant device, that can answer questions about some claims; and ClaimBuster, a tool developed at the University of Texas at Arlington, designed to quickly call out falsehoods on Twitter.

The use of these new technologies, however, can present new challenges.

Ronnie Rojas, who helps lead fact-checking efforts at Univision News in Miami, described his newsroom’s new way of presenting fact-checks with appeal for younger audiences: comics.

“Traffic was very good for us,” he said. “We had 40 to 50 percent more traffic with comics than regular text.” But he noted that producing comics came with a higher price tag.

7. Enlisting new allies

Journalists certainly have no monopoly on truth, or its pursuit. Teachers are attempting to build more lessons around the need to verify information, offering checklists or coming up with games that help lead them through the process of determining whether statements are true.Exposing young people during the educational process, from grade school through university, to the concept of critical reasoning and its attendant techniques — as employed by fact-checkers — is a key effort,” said David Mikkelson of Snopes.

Librarians also are providing information and sources about topics that are in the news. A Seattle library fact-checked a voters guide during the 2016 elections; Mila Sanina of Pittsburgh’s nonprofit newsroom PublicSource has assisted in training sessions at public libraries to help voters do their own fact-checking. Said one participant: “It’s nice to see that the youth news literacy movement is freshly fired up, but adults need this help just as badly, maybe more.”

Journalists certainly have no monopoly on truth, or its pursuit.

Other participants discussed partners who might be enlisted in the cause of spreading accurate information. Getting fact-checks out of news pages and into other non-industry outlets was one idea that received attention. Why write another piece for a journalism industry outlet, Jane Elizabeth asked, when you could reach more non-practitioners with ideas about fact-checking by collaborating with a lifestyle magazine such as Real Simple? And if audiences in rural America are reading agricultural trade journals, why not get fact-checking methods of information into such publications?

National news organizations can further their partnerships with local media, offering up information that perhaps could be presented so it’s bannered or tagged more prominently with the local provider than the national outlet, suggested Arp, the WISC-TV reporter. Claire Wardle of First Draft News described “Electionland,” a ProPublica partnership with news organizations and colleges, which helped check reports of Election Day polling problems.

Summit attendees came up with other ideas for presenting fact-checks on what one person called “a retail level.” They included:

  • Groups of clergy routinely share ideas for sermons, one participant said, so why not offer up talking points toward a “no false witness” campaign for truth?
  • Younger audiences could post selfie videos asking or answering questions about factual claims, which could be embedded in broadcasts or on the web.
  • New or existing book clubs could host events to talk about the news and discuss facts.
  • Games such as trivia contests could be used to guide people through information and misinformation.
  • School assemblies could build on classroom work around media literacy — turning into what one summit attendee called “pep rallies for the truth.”

A final call to action: Become more audience-centric

Bill Adair, director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, said it’s important for fact-checkers to understand they’ve become distrusted by segments of society. “If there was a theme in all the research” and discussion, “is that we’re not reaching red America.”

What’s needed for fact-checking in general is a more audience-centric approach, said API’s Rosenstiel. That involves not only coming up with new delivery systems for fact-checking, but also entails thinking more about the purposes of the pursuit. That is, the focus of fact-checking shouldn’t exclusively be on weighing the veracity of individual statements. The goal should be finding ways to empower audiences to understand things for themselves, rather than telling them whether something is right or wrong.

“These political claims are subsets about what’s true or not about a larger issue,” Rosenstiel said. “If you become more audience-centric, facts become subsets of knowledge around an issue.”

Another way to expand audiences: Expand the scope of coverage. As a profession, fact-checking focuses almost exclusively on government — clearly important, but also a lightning rod. What other topic areas do audiences need help understanding? Health, science, business, sports, even entertainment? To the extent fact-checking becomes more of a consumer service, audiences will come to understand it’s intended to be a tool that helps them.

“As we look to the next decade of fact-checking, we’ve got to grow the audience,” Adair said. “We’ve got the choir, but we’ve got to stop preaching to the choir. We’ve got to get the rest of the congregation.”

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