David Axelrod is probably best known for his role as the chief strategist on the successful presidential campaigns of Barack Obama. But before he became involved in national politics, Axelrod — who now serves as a political analyst on CNN — was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Axelrod was hired out of college and quickly developed into a star political reporter and City Hall bureau chief. It’s a story from Axelrod’s early days at the Tribune that sticks with him and one that offers some insight into the age of misinformation that surrounds us.
While moderating a discussion on disinformation and the erosion of democracy put on jointly by The Atlantic and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics — where he serves as a director — Axelrod recalled working on a story with a hook that was too good to ignore.
“Someone who was an official in the county penal system reported to me that a guy who had gone on a bus and killed people was the brother of another guy who’d gone on the bus and killed people, which was a pretty good story,” Alexrod said. “The desk was hot for it.”
Axelrod wrote what he knew but said he told his editors to hold the story until he could confirm all the facts. Instead, the story mistakenly ran in the paper.
“The next day, I got a letter from a lawyer that said, ‘I represent so and so, who is not related to so and so,’” Alexrod said. “It was a sobering lesson.”
In an era of rampant misinformation, journalists tend to focus on the bad players, like social media companies that care more about their bottom line than the wrong information that washes over their platforms. But we tend to do a lousy job at focusing on our own biases, which can unintentionally lead us to misrepresent facts, provide incorrect or incomplete reporting, and create the perception of misinformation we’re all trying so hard to combat.
Take the recent fracas involving a laptop owned by Hunter Biden, the son of President Joe Biden. The story of Hunter’s laptop was pushed by the Trump campaign as an election-altering scandal but ended up being a boring story about a son trading on his family’s name, much of which was already widely reported by outlets like The New York Times and others.
The New York Post was the first to publish a story on the contents of Hunter’s laptop (despite some very sketchy sourcing and the reluctance of one reporter to put his byline on the piece). Quickly, the prevailing narrative became that the laptop might be part of a Russian misinformation campaign intent on impacting the election, despite little evidence to back up that claim.
Most major news outlets handled the story cautiously and quickly moved on. Twitter and Facebook made the story invisible on their platforms. Today, you hear a constant cry of conservative media pundits complaining that news outlets intentionally buried the story because of their left-leaning bias.
Former New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, who left the paper in January to launch his own media organization, thinks media-heavy Twitter helped play a role in the decision of news organizations to move on quickly from the story by providing an echo chamber to reporters about their failures during the 2016 campaign when emails of Hillary Clinton that were hacked by Wikileaks were widely reported by news organizations.
“We are also susceptible to the kind of power of these narrative and affirmation — journalists in particular — coming from social media,” Smith said during the panel. “If all your followers tell you this is misinformation, it can be its own kind of narrative that you can fall for if you’re not careful.”
“I think it was just easier for journalists to say, ‘Oh, this is misinformation. We'll stay away from it,’ than to interview this weird repairman in Delaware and figure out what actually happened,” Smith added.
In this case, some skepticism was certainly warranted. As The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance said during the panel, “If Rudy Giuliani tells you something’s true, you should check.” But when The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other large journalism institutions back off and give the impression that a story isn’t worth covering, it can negatively impact journalists and outlets without their same reporting resources.
“If the right-wing gets very excited about a story, a lot of the large mainstream outlets with real reporting resources will just be like, ‘This whole landscape is polluted and toxic, and we won’t go into it and try to figure out what is true,’” Smith said. “It just leaves these vacuums.”
Another famous example of this confirmation bias in action happened during the 2004 election when 60 Minutes aired a flawed report that President George W. Bush received preferential treatment while in the Air National Guard. An investigation by CBS revealed problems in how the story was reported and vetted, leading to the firing of Dan Rather and a handful of CBS News executives.
Jonah Goldberg, the noted conservative political writer who publicly parted ways with Fox News after 12 years as a contributor due to the network’s increasingly unhinged direction, said one obvious solution is the simplest one — increase the diversity of newsrooms, including hiring more conservatives.
“Dan Rather would not have climbed up the jackass tree and fallen down, hitting every branch on the way… if they just had one person in the newsroom who didn't want that story to be true,” Goldberg said. “It was too good to check.”
Twitter, of course, supercharges that confirmation bias because journalists are part of an echo chamber that’s primarily filled with other reporters and media pundits. It’s easy to forget that just 20% or so of Americans actually use the platform, according to a 2019 Pew survey, and a fraction of those are responsible for most of Twitter’s content.
So in that light, it’s no surprise that New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet wants his reporters to spend less time on Twitter and “strengthen our commitment to treating information there with the journalistic skepticism that we would any source, story or critic.”
“Twitter has tremendous value,” Baquet told the Nieman Journalism Lab. “We have readers there; we have people we want to hear. I thought it became outsized in its influence. I thought that some journalists were, you know, looking to Twitter for validation of their coverage. And I think that gave Twitter more power than, frankly, it deserved.”
Smith has the simplest solution for journalists.
“We're all subject to the same kinds of illusions on social media. That feeling of ‘This story is so right; it has to be true.’ Like, that story is always false,” Smith said. “So just knowing that the stories you like best, the ones that surface to you the most on social media, are almost always false, it's a good discipline.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at email@example.com.
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