These should be heady days for fact-checkers.
In an industry that has not otherwise been enjoying robust growth, the number of media outlets focused on fact-checking and political accountability reporting has grown rapidly. Bolstered by new partnerships and technology, demonstrably more fact-checking took place during the 2016 election than in previous elections. Media organizations including NPR and the Washington Post report record-breaking readership of their fact-checking work.
“This is an incredibly important time to be a journalist,” said Yanick Rice Lamb, a former journalist and now a journalism professor at Howard University. “Never has the watchdog role been more important.”
Fact-checking also has entered into the broader public consciousness, as a lightning rod for politicians, a source of comedy, and even donations. PolitiFact, for instance, exceeding its $100,000 annual goal for memberships in less than a month.
This is an incredibly important time to be a journalist. Never has the watchdog role been more important.
At the same time, however, fact-checking faces enormous challenges. The election season saw a proliferation of fast-spreading misinformation concocted to bolster or attack candidates, and “fake news” designed for profit.
The Trump administration continues to cast doubts on the credibility of journalists and accountability reporting, confounding the conversation with “alternative facts” and fueling social media disdain for fact-checking. And the difficulty of communicating with partisan and sometimes distrustful audiences continues to challenge fact-checkers well past Election Day.
To explore such challenges, the American Press Institute, the Poynter Institute and Duke University Reporters’ Lab hosted a recent summit at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The invitation-only event included more than 70 participants, including fact-checkers and other journalists, researchers, educators, librarians, and representatives from foundations and technology companies.
While acknowledging the areas in which fact-checking has been a success, the discussion primarily centered on how to reach a wider audience: exploring alternative formats, considering new research, and focusing on understanding of issues rather than rating political statements on their veracity.
This report encapsulates those discussions, and explores how the enterprise of fact-checking can advance and adapt. It reflects the broad consensus among practitioners that it’s time to formulate “fact-checking 2.0,” including new approaches to serve an audience that is fracturing, morphing and buffeted by bad information.
In conjunction with these efforts, the American Press Institute is supporting research that examines aspects of accountability journalism and its effectiveness. Results will be released in mid-2017. The general topics are:
- How people respond when a fact check disproves their beliefs about a controversial issue
- How and why people choose to read fact-checking/accountability articles
- How sources used in fact-checking articles affect the impact of fact-checking articles.
The group of experts at the summit from both inside and outside the media industry generated innovative ideas to improve the practice and impact of accountability journalism. These are included in the final chapter of this report, and include technological solutions for speed and accuracy; design solutions for transparency; ideas to increase audience reach and impact, especially among resistant consumers; and enlisting community allies and partners to help promote and improve the accountability work of media organizations.
We are continuing to pursue many of these ideas and will examine research results to help guide us to efficient, effective solutions. We welcome ideas, assistance and questions.
Challenges from an “alternative facts” era
Politicians have lied throughout history, but today’s political climate presents particular challenges to fact-checkers — and that was the concern of journalists and others gathered at our summit earlier this year.
Throughout the 2016 election cycle and into the new White House administration, some politicians’ habit of making “demonstrably false claims” has kept fact-checkers exceptionally busy. (Andy Borowitz, a humor writer for The New Yorker, has joked that President Trump has created “10 million jobs for fact-checkers.”) But while fact-checkers have tried to hold those in power to account, the current administration has complained about fact-checkers’ work.
The Trump administration has publicly repudiated journalistic fact-checking and dismissed critical news coverage as “fake.” It is a deliberate strategy, media and communications experts say, and one that appears to resonate with some (mostly) conservative audiences who were already primed to mistrust the media during the 2016 campaign. The verbal attacks on reporters during the campaign, particularly at rallies where journalists were kept in “pens” and taunted by Trump supporters, went largely unaddressed by media leaders and continue today.
For fact-checkers, a key concern is how to cover the administration’s prevaricators and supporters of this “dishonest media” theme, without appearing to justify administration claims that the news media are “the opposition party” or “enemies of the people.”
For fact-checkers, a key concern is how to cover the administration’s prevaricators and supporters of this ‘dishonest media’ theme.
Consider some carefully fact-checked claims from the first month of the new administration. There were administration claims about massive voter fraud in the November election that had no basis in fact; misinformation about the nation’s murder rate; and inflations of the inauguration crowd size. From the president’s official Twitter account came statements about “any negative polls” — that is, those that are not favorable to his immigration policies — being “fake news.” At a news conference, the president said his electoral vote total beat every president since Ronald Reagan, even though every subsequent president but one had higher totals. When questioned on NBC about the conflicts between administration claims about the inauguration size, a counselor to the president explained the White House was simply offering “alternative facts.” The instantly immortal phrase was widely critiqued.
Perversely, the power and reach of the president’s bully pulpit is demonstrated most amply when he says something that is demonstrably untrue. In a series of tweets on March 4, Trump alleged that President Obama had ordered a wiretapping of Trump’s office while Trump was still a candidate and a private citizen. Trump offered no evidence and his claim has since been denied by an Obama spokesman, Obama’s national intelligence director, members of Congress (including Republicans), and the current directors of the National Security Agency and the FBI. Nonetheless, a CBS News poll released March 29 found that 74 percent of Republicans surveyed believed it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that Trump’s office had been wiretapped during the campaign.
The incidents also contributed to a debate among fact-checkers that began well before election day: whether to call such comments “lies.” The New York Times called Trump’s comments about voter fraud a lie on its front page; NPR, by contrast, has stated that it does not want to ascribe lies to Trump without knowing for certain his intent was to deceive.
Fact-checkers at the conference made it clear they want their role to be understood as sifting through truth as finely as they can, not seeking to undermine any particular politician or party. Still, they’re aware that’s not a message that resonates in this politically charged post-election climate.
I don’t think you’ve got a fact-checking problem as much as you have a problem with the idea of the news business being impartial observers.
Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster and a summit participant, told the group, “I don’t think you’ve got a fact-checking problem as much as you have a problem with the idea of the news business being impartial observers. Americans simply don’t trust the news media in general.”
Newhouse cited numerous polls that demonstrate a declining faith in news outlets. A Gallup poll released last September, for example, found that Americans’ trust in mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” had plunged to a new low. Only 32 percent of those surveyed said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media, which was a drop of 8 percentage points from 2015. The numbers were even lower among Republicans, with only 14 percent saying they had faith in the media. In an American Press Institute survey last year, only 6 percent of people said they have a great deal of confidence in the press.
In October, Quinnipiac University released a poll that found 55 percent of likely voters believed the media were biased against Trump, including nearly 90 percent of Republicans.
“Your industry is losing the public opinion battle,” Newhouse told the group. “Americans believe that reporters are biased and try to help the candidates that they support win.”
This poses a challenge for democracy, Newhouse added: If Americans can’t agree on what facts are, how can they agree about how to respond?
Lack of trust in the media unquestionably undermines the credibility of fact-checkers, noted Angie Drobnic Holan, the editor of PolitiFact. “While we are clear in our minds about the differences between reporting and opinion, what’s clear to us is not at all clear to readers,” she said. “Fact checks come out of the reportorial tradition, but people see us as opinion [writers], because we’re weighing in.”
If Americans can’t agree on what facts are, how can they agree about how to respond?
Readers don’t always distinguish between analysis — a considered judgment about how, for instance, a policy is likely to play out — and opinion. The push in recent times to offer more analysis as a means of distinguishing their coverage may have undermined the credibility of media outlets, suggested Greg Linch, a data developer at McClatchy.
Jessica Arp of WISC-TV in Madison, Wis., one of the pioneers in fact-checking at the local level, said reporters must work harder to engage their audiences in the story development process. That effort should help readers and viewers understand that reporters are not trying to promote their own agendas; rather, they are attempting to help people to sort truth from fiction themselves. “The more we can make fact-checking about trying to help you, maybe the more trust people will have,” Arp said. More examples of reader engagement are discussed below.
The context in which fact-checking often appears on digital platforms — draped within news coverage and opinion and even advertising — affects its credibility.
“One thing that’s important to consider is the role that shady sponsored content plays in diminishing trust in fact-checking and the press,” said Joyce Garczynski, a communications librarian at Towson University. “When you have fact-checking side-by-side with ads for less-than-reputable products and services, and users can’t tell the difference, it can only hurt news outlets’ overall credibility.”
Addressing partisan and cognitive bias
The potential pitfalls of journalists attempting to play referee have been inherent to fact-checking since it first emerged as a stand-alone pursuit more than a quarter-century ago, Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said at the summit.
“We were assuming that people knew our role and that calling out falsehoods is something they’d appreciate,” he said. Instead, fact-checkers are sometimes accused of tilting their judgments for partisan reasons. “We’re playing a more pointed role, so we’re at the point of that spear” of media distrust, Rosenstiel said.
Political fact-checking encourages reporters to question politicians’ accounts of events, rather than simply recording what they said. Typically, a fact check is limited to one claim by one person; and if only one person’s veracity called into question, that can lead partisans to wonder whether the media’s deck is stacked against its candidates.
The potential pitfalls of journalists attempting to play referee have been inherent to fact-checking since it first emerged as a stand-alone pursuit.
Accusations of bias against the news media are nothing new, but in an era of starkly polarized divisions there’s now an increasing awareness of how non-journalists — that is to say, citizens in general — also bring bias to the table.
Shortly after the January inauguration, two researchers conducted an experiment using photos from the Trump inauguration and from the 2009 Obama inauguration. Taken from the same vantage point, the photos showed that the crowd for Trump was less dense than the crowd for Obama.
When shown the photos, Trump voters were significantly more likely than Hillary Clinton voters or non-voters to give the wrong answer about which photo had more people. “Even when the photographic evidence was directly in front of them and the question was straightforward, one in seven Trump supporters gave the clearly false answer,” the researchers found.
This finding was in keeping with other social science research that has shown people are willing to skew their own beliefs in order to align with their party, such as believing the economy is doing better when their party holds the White House.
At the summit, Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology and law at Yale University, outlined studies he helped conduct that show a clear partisan divide when it comes to answers about questions on subjects such as gun control, evolution and fracking.
For instance, there’s a clear partisan divide when people are asked whether it’s true or false that “human-caused global warming will result in flooding of many coastal regions,” with conservatives more likely to say that is false. But if that statement is prefaced by the phrase “according to climate scientists,” there’s no partisan divide at all, said Kahan.
When tested on their scientific knowledge of climate science, liberals and conservatives are likely to offer the same (correct) answer, Kahan said. On the other hand, if the question is limited to one’s personal beliefs about climate change, respondents tend to follow their partisan inclinations. Conservatives know that the Republican Party, for the most part, is skeptical about climate change, and they want to represent beliefs that comport with the party’s position.
“People are trying to be who they are as members of a group,” Kahan said. “They know the answer. They’ve been told what scientists believe. There are ways in which they can use that information, but otherwise that’s overridden by their desire to be part of a community and have the collective identity.”
It’s not ignorance. Kahan’s experiments show that the more numerate or educated people are, the more likely they are to give wrong answers if they feel partisan fealty demands it. More educated people are more likely to find ways of rationalizing their incorrect answers.
People are trying to be who they are as members of a group. They know the answer. They’ve been told what scientists believe. There are ways in which they can use that information, but otherwise that’s overridden by their desire to be part of a community and have the collective identity.
“Our work shows that people not only use emotional evidence to fit their group’s position, they use slow, deliberative reasoning to do the same,” Kahan said. “They’re never missing it when the data supports their view. If [the data] doesn’t, they’re turning on the cognitive afterburners.”
This complicates the work of fact-checkers when their work casts doubt on positions held by party leaders and the public who follow them. What’s more, the sense of subscribing to a partisan identity can extend to people’s choices of news outlets.
“Several people noted that when fact-checking is associated with the mainstream press it is immediately suspect among people who depend largely on Fox and the Internet for their news,” said Tom Stites, founder and president of the Banyan Project, a nonprofit that helps support community news cooperatives. “An important tactic going forward will be finding ways to bring fact-checking to people in neutral packages.”
Even when people do change their minds about misinformation thanks to a fact check, they may dismiss the results, said researcher D.J. Flynn of Dartmouth College. They may believe corrective information about a particular economic fact but may subsequently downgrade the amount of importance they attach to that particular issue, because their new (correct) stance does not help their party’s cause.
Therefore, Flynn said, “If you correct a false claim, they might double down on their existing opinions.” In other words, persuasion is a moving target. Presenting people with evidence and discrete facts may not be enough to change how they think about an issue more broadly.
“Our fact-checking really only speaks to half of our brains,” said Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of the American Press Institute. “It treats people as rational actors: If we give people the right information, they’ll make the right decision. But we know we’re not rational people. Half of the brain is emotional and driven by other things.”
And fact-checkers, no matter how well-intended or neutral they consider themselves to be, must be willing to check themselves for bias, suggested Brad Scriber, deputy research director for National Geographic magazine. “How can fact-checkers be assured that we are keeping our own biases in check? How do various outlets calibrate to be sure that your staff is objective and remain so?”
A growing challenge: Misinformation and social media
Emerging from the summit discussions were two clear challenges: One, getting carefully checked information to the audiences who would benefit from it, which we will discuss later in this report. The other: Figuring out how to respond to the torrent of misinformation that is being spread rapidly via social media and other methods.
Fake news — stories that are invented either partly or fully, in order to push a narrative — became a phenomenon in 2016, with its practitioners enjoying substantial success in website traffic.
As one conference attendee noted, fake news is the “like” economy working at peak efficiency. Fake news is designed to have the hallmarks of content that spreads frictionlessly through social media: headlines that stick and generate lots of clicks.
It also works in terms of reinforcing group identity, encouraging people to embrace stories that reinforce their existing worldview. Although fake news stories that supported Trump received most of the attention in 2016, there are already indications that those on the left are sharing more fake news stories during the Trump presidency than they did during the campaign.
Fake news is the ‘like’ economy working at peak efficiency.
“People who think they’ve been pushed out of the political world as it is right now are going to be susceptible to misinformation — they’re going to focus on whatever makes them feel better,” Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Snopes.com, recently told the Christian Science Monitor.
Fact-checkers must decide how much of their time and attention they can afford to devote to correcting information that is not only misleading but clearly false. They are aware that much of the misinformation during a campaign season flies in under the radar; viral emails, for instance, still play a role. And they may have to step up their games, as technology becomes more sophisticated. In the near future, for instance, fakers will be able to convincingly alter audio and even video in ways that will make it hard to distinguish fact from pure fiction.
How fact-checkers will respond to new challenges
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.
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.”