When an explosion rocked Manhattan on a recent Thursday afternoon, the local media went into a frenzy.
The Twittersphere became like the classic game of telephone. A tweet alleged a car bomb had caused the explosion. Another tweet claimed it might have been a transformer. But each tweet and each claim came with hedge, stock lines so many breaking news reporters repeat: “I’m hearing,” “seems like” and “initial reports.”
As the frantic news cycle churned, those tweets were retweeted absent of fact checking. The loud boom in New York that day, it turned out was a manhole cover that blew off.
Since the advent of the internet, reporters on every regional and national panel have been asked how the web has made what has always been a cutthroat competition to get things up and get things up first even worse. News organizations are sprinting with the perception that being first means an organization owns the story. Still readers demand news operations get it right.
And the demands for accuracy have taken on a heightened importance with the recent assaults on news credibility. Spreading information—and thereby misinformation even quicker—has made the need to get things right all the more important.
Attention to Detail
Ann Tatko-Peterson is the assistant managing editor of audience for the Bay Area News Group. She was part of the breaking news team at the East Bay Times when the Ghost Ship fire broke out in December 2016. The stories were rigorously fact checked—a process Tatko-Peterson said is always being revisited. When it came to the Ghost Ship fire, a lead cops reporter, Harry Harris, got a call at around 4:30 a.m. that there was a three alarm fire and possible fatalities. Clearly, Harris had a great inside source, but even with that, the newsroom made sure they had two people on the scene to confirm the number of fatalities before going with it. Someone else may have tweeted out the news as soon as they got the call, but reporters and newsrooms have to have a system of checks and balances, Tatko-Peterson said.
“The interesting thing is we’ve looked at our policy many times, especially in this day and age when more and more outlets are posting the news as soon as it happens, whether or not we want to be in the same boat or if we want to continue to retain this idea that you don’t put anything up unless you feel confident that it is in fact true,” she said.
The attention to detail and fact-checking paid off for the paper. The East Bay Times won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting the following spring.
Modern newsrooms, especially regional operations like those in the Bay Area, are like a rubber band. Each year, the staff is thinned, as it has been this year with more than 50 journalists either being laid off or taking buyouts. Still the demand for news, and quick up-to-the-minute scoops, are pulling at the rubber band, stretching resources to the breaking point.
“In this day and age when we have fewer copy editors, the fact checking is nearly nowhere as high as it needs to be, and it places a higher requirement on reporters to get it right, to be our own fact checkers,” said Tatko-Peterson.
The onus to maintain accuracy now falls on frontline reporters and a handful of editors. Jane Elizabeth, director of the Accountability Journalism Program at the American Press Institute, said organizations need to practice the strategies necessary to produce quick and accurate news gathering.
“Even the smallest newsroom should be prepared to jump in on social media in that situation or any school shooting, but I think there’s really no secret for how to do that. Reporters should just do what they do—get information and confirm it,” she said. “I’m just concerned that people aren’t prepared.”
Elizabeth added that newsrooms can make an honest mistake, but you need to correct the information quickly.
On April 2, API along with Poynter held its second-annual International Fact Checking Day. “It’s held the day after April Fool’s day for a reason,” Elizabeth said.
Along with acting as a “rallying cry for more facts,” the date also celebrates the release of updated materials, activities and even free online courses for student journalists to become better fact checkers. The courses focus not only on basic, everyday rules and steps for fact checking, but also get into the steps for fact checking videos and photos.
For newsrooms, Elizabeth said the technology is advancing so quickly it’s getting harder and harder for people to catch up with verifying the information. But Elizabeth urges reporters to go back to the tenets of journalism.
“Make a call. Get in touch with a person in the video or photo. Practice how to do this. Look for signs within the video that make it look a little suspicious, there are a few basic things you can do,” she said. “If there’s a decent chance that it’s fake, and you post it anyway, I think that’s pretty irresponsible.”
If the internet demanded journalists to sprint, social media has demanded those same reporters in newsrooms to report on roller skates. It’s not just the pace of new media that has disrupted time-tested methods for reporting, fact checking and publishing, but that one tweet, one Facebook post or comment, can alter the news cycle in an instant. Like the New York manhole story that metastasized into a possible terror attack in minutes, a share on Facebook or Twitter can birth all manner of outrageous claims. Journalists, according to Tatko-Peterson, would be wise to dust off an old adage in journalism: If your mother said she loves you, check it out. In 2018, the saying goes more like: If your mother shares something on Facebook, check the source before you share.
“Unless I know who the source is or where it originated, I don’t care that it came from my mom or my colleague, unless I know the source, I’m not sharing it,” Tatko-Peterson said.
Sharing information and making sure it’s accurate doesn’t just include what’s originally reported—it also includes what’s shared. “We as the media should step back, and say we have a very important duty to make sure nothing we put out there is fake, to feed the beast so to say,” she added.
Take for instance, a recently circulated photo of Parkland shooting survivor, and now gun law activist, Emma Gonzalez. A photo of Gonzalez tearing up a paper shooting target was edited to look as if she were tearing up the Constitution instead, and the photo spread like wildfire on social media.
“Just the fact that something like that can get out and can spread, that to me is the scary part,” Tatko-Peterson said. “That’s why our role is important—to come back and say, ‘Hey, Guess what? This is wrong, it’s fake news.’”
Fact checking 3.0.
Social media has been under fire in with Facebook coming under considerable fire for the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Social media giants and news organizations operate with a different set of expectations. A news organization is not assembled on sprawling networks of friends, like, retweets, @s or follows, but on trust. Tatko-Peterson said the responsibility for journalists to share accurate information has always been a first commandment of the job—and it now extends to what they report originally and what they share from others.
“You can see how people rely so strongly on these platforms to get their news, and so you want to be able to believe that what you’re reading is reliable and accurate,” she said. “But I believe the internet has made it a dangerous place for us.”
Yet the internet is a place new media can’t ignore. The audience is on social media, and politicians leverage Facebook and Twitter to connect directly with constituents absent a filter or a fact check. Perhaps no one has mastered social media as a way of sidestepping the press as well as President Donald Trump.
Fact checking websites, Snopes and Politifact, have seen their mission shift some in recent years. Even with our current president, fact checking presidents is nothing new. President Barack Obama was the most fact checked person on the site, according to Louis Jacobson, senior correspondent at Politifact. And half of the content checked by Politifact is sourced back to memes, chain emails and Facebook and Twitter posts.
In recent months, news organizations like the Associated Press and Politifact have become more engaged in partnerships with Facebook to root out more “fake news” and better inform readers on social media. The site maintains a partnership with Facebook to weed out fake news. Jacobson said the partnership with Facebook has replaced some of the standalone work they used to do when it came to checking things on social media.
“A lot of what we do in terms of fact checking ‘fake news’ on social media is done in that (relationship). It accommodates much of what we would have probably fact checked independently prior to the Facebook deal, and we’ll still sometimes do fact checks on individual memes on our own, but the question we have to ask is do we want to fact check a politician instead of a meme? How widely spread is this meme? All these factors go into it.”
But Trump’s blend of speeches and Twitter barrages have increasingly been a part of their workload, Jacobson said.
“There are two unusual things. One is (Trump’s) speaking style. It’s an unusual speaking style but also comes out in his tweeting. Sometimes it’s very hard to understand actually what he’s arguing or saying more so than other politicians,” Jacobson said. “So that can be challenging as a fact checker. He’s not somebody who is deeply schooled in the policy details or verbiage. Other politicians, even when they’re shading the truth, will sort of stick to normal conventions about how things are expressed, and that’s not really the case a lot of the time with Trump.”
Jacobson said a news organization could make a case for fact checking every Trump statement, but that wouldn’t be wise editorially with so many politicians using social media to communicate their message. Misdirection or flat out lying knows no party affiliation and is prevalent at all levels of government. No one in power should get a free pass.
API began an accountability project during the 2016 election year. Accountability is a word thrown out a lot in journalism circles. It’s much more than rooting out fake news; it’s about holding politicians feet to the fire on matters of policy, and API’s Elizabeth, who heads the effort, believes it could help news organizations hold onto valuable readers.
“If we focus on the issues rather than talking about which candidate is lying, you have a better chance of getting people to read your content,” she said. “If you already know who you’re probably going to vote or and you open up your newspaper or log into your favorite newspaper and there’s a picture of your candidate calling them a liar, then you’ve automatically lost that person. And they’re not going to believe what they say.”
They call it fact checking 3.0. The project is scanning an ever-increasing partisan media and looking for better ways to engage the audience.
“If you really are trying to promote understanding, you should be talking about the issues. Don’t ignore the politician or the candidate, but focus on what people don’t understand about an issue,” Elizabeth said.
And there is nothing fake about reporting that news.
Jennifer Swift is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of D.C. Witness, a website that tracks every homicide in Washington. Prior to moving to D.C., Jennifer worked for Connecticut magazine as their state politics reporter, and covered multiple topics at the New Haven Register including city hall, education and police.