Digital Publishing: To Stop Misinformation From Spreading, Journalists Shouldn’t Fall Down the Social Media Rabbit Hole

By this point, the phrase “fake news” has become as ubiquitous in newsrooms as “election night pizza.”

It’s a term that conjures up images of bad actors in foreign governments diligently working to undermine our democracy, or cynical profiteers looking to take advantage of a general lack of sophistication on social media to make a quick buck.

But sometimes, we’re the ones creating the fake news.

Mary Kulundu, a reporter on Agence France-Presse’s fact check desk, recently wrote an eye-opening story about Kenya’s plans to introduce the death penalty for convicted wildlife poachers. As it turns out, the story was completely false, but that didn’t stop it from easily spreading to a large number of legitimate news websites, with many racking up more than 100,000 shares each.

I won’t name them here, but some pretty hefty newspapers and online publishers wrote versions of the story, which Kulundu found were ultimately sourced to the Chinese news agency Xinhua. Unfortunately, most simply didn’t bother attempting to seek confirmation from anyone in Kenya’s government, choosing instead to source another outlet’s report, which sourced a different outlet’s report… and down the rabbit hole we went.

Katy Lee, a colleague of Kulundu’s on the fact check desk, wrote in a Twitter thread she thought the story revealed how funding cuts at major newsrooms matched with the demands of online publishing can be as much a source of misinformation as troll farms in Russia.

“Why did sites run the story without checking it? Some (because) they want content that gets clicks and don’t give a rat’s arse about standards,” Lee wrote. “Others because they no longer have staff with the time to check these things with Kenyan authorities, or the judgment to consider it necessary.”

“Is it the end of the world if tens of thousands of people wrongly think Kenya is introducing the death penalty for poachers? Maybe not. But this kind of sloppy journalism is now everywhere, because content = clicks = money,” Lee added.

Reminding reporters to follow the basic rules of journalism seems a bit basic for a 2019 column on digital journalism, but unfortunately that’s where we find ourselves. The demands for faster publishing continue to smack head-on with the shrinking size of newsrooms across the globe, creating an ecosystem that invariably leads to shortcuts and errors.

Journalists can’t do much to stop bad actors from cynically exploiting social media networks unwilling or unable to prevent misinformation from being spread on their platforms. But we can take care of things on our end, and first on the list is simply checking the facts behind what you’re putting out, regardless if you’re a reporter or an editor.

Second on the list, and almost as important, is to limit your reliance on Twitter. Among the worst habits reporters and editors have picked up (including myself) is an over-reliance on Twitter to help with everything from gauging public opinion to choosing the angle of our storytelling. According to the Pew Research Center, just 24 percent of adults online use Twitter, making it the least popular among the major social media platforms (even LinkedIn). Its demographics also skew to the younger side (18-29), meaning it’s not very representative of most communities newsrooms cover.

In a terrific piece that surprisingly didn’t find much love in the left-leaning corners of Twitter, New York Times data reporters Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy broke down how Democrats on social media are largely dominated by outspoken progressive activists, while those who don’t typically post political content online are outnumbered roughly 2-to-1 by more moderate and diverse Democrats.

Central to Cohn and Quealy’s reporting was data provided by the Hidden Tribes Project, a year-long study conducted by the nonprofit initiative More in Common that attempted to research the growing trend of online polarization and tried to find solutions to the problem.

Unfortunately, it’s the most polarized voices on Twitter that generally get noticed and written about by journalists. That’s especially true when it comes to covering politics, where Twitter becomes the equivalent of a digital bar frequented by activists, partisan pundits, campaign operatives and even the candidates themselves.

As a tool, Twitter has obvious value to journalists. Following the right experts on your beat can enhance your reporting and make you aware of things you might otherwise have missed. During breaking news events, it’s an invaluable tool for gaining information instantaneously on the ground from just about any location on the planet.

Unfortunately, it’s breaking news events where reporters relying on Twitter are at their most vulnerable, with crackpots, partisan hacks and fake news purveyors hard at work spewing out misinformation.

Twitter can also be an exercise in group think, allowing reporters to unintentionally spread false narratives and foster the growth of widely-held assumptions. A recent example occurred in January when early reporting based on videos on Twitter painted teens on a high school trip in Washington, D.C. in a negative light, largely because they happened to be wearing pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” hats.

Daniel Funke, who covers fact-checking and misinformation for Poynter Institute, said newsrooms—with their social media teams in the lead—should develop a breaking news checklist for reporters, producers, and editors responsible for covering live events.

“(These) people are on the frontlines of misinformation every single day. They are seeing these things more than anyone and they weren’t empowered to do anything about it,” American Press Institute’s Jane Elizabeth, who authored a report on how the structure of newsrooms makes them susceptible to fake news, told Poynter last year.

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed News, spoke on a panel at this year’s Campaign Journalism Conference, and suggested using Twitter to gauge where the conversation is going, rather than feeling the need to write up what’s being written on the social media platform at any one time.

“You want to do the story that’s going to blow up on Twitter in three days,” Smith said. “The worst thing you can do to a reporter is, ‘Oh, my God, did you see this tweet? Can you write it up?’”

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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