Industry Insight

Following a Year of Lies and Conspiracy Theories, Media Literacy Has to Come First

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If I could go back in time to the days and weeks following the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, I would make one major addition to the news coverage my newsroom was providing in Connecticut.

At the New Haven Register and sister publications at the time, we were proud to have gotten scooped on a number of stories…that turned out to be completely false. But if I could do it over again, we wouldn’t have simply been careful to verify before publishing our own work while ignoring the irresponsible stuff others were doing. We would have guided our readers through the array of false and unconfirmed information they were hearing on TV news, from parachuting national outlets and social media.

Here’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know. This is why we’re not reporting the thing that everyone is talking about. Here’s how verification and proper sourcing works. Here’s how rumors can get started and what we do to verify information before we report it. And here’s how even police and official sources can get things wrong in the chaos of a major breaking news crisis.

If it hadn’t been Sandy Hook, no doubt it would have been something else. But it felt like a major turning point in the rise of misinformation-for-profit artists such as Alex Jones, and a broader deterioration of media literacy supercharged by social media platforms. Rushed initial reporting that was wrong, including near-live recitation of conflicting and changing details from the police, provided all the fodder conspiracy theorists needed to develop a following, erode the public’s faith in media and public institutions, and torture victims’ families for years.

Eight years later, and we’ve got QAnon supporters who believe that a Satanic cult involved in child sex trafficking controls the government, and roughly a quarter of voters believing aspects of their bonkers, made-up lies. We have a sitting U.S. president who refused to denounce their support during his re-election campaign, who has lied publicly more than 20,000 times while in office, urges the American public not to trust news media of almost any kind, and who has suggested that journalists be “locked up.”

I don’t see how news organizations can move forward without incorporating that fact checking, misinformation-busting operation I wish we’d had in place during our Sandy Hook coverage.

It shouldn’t mean giving a megaphone to misinformation. We were right, in hindsight, to ignore Westboro Baptist Church’s rumblings about protesting at Sandy Hook victims’ funerals. (They never came, but got a ton of media attention from the threat and riled everyone up as intended.) And news outlets, particularly local TV stations, have erred in giving small QAnon demonstrations equal weight with efforts and sentiments that represent an exponentially larger portion of the public.

But responsible journalists can’t ignore or afford to be unaware of what their readers are hearing from friends, or what their media diet is, including memes, Facebook groups, Russian misinformation campaigns, Fox News or the emerging network of “pink slime” partisan-and-paid-for “local news” sites.

Debunking things you’re not reporting could be as much of a service as reporting.

Publishers should be following best practices recommended by organizations such as the Trust Project, including clear distinguishment of opinion and straight news content, rigorous corrections policies, and transparency about who owns a media outlet, and how articles are verified and written.

Journalists should use the “truth sandwich” in reporting lies by powerful or prominent people so as not to amplify them in the process is also essential.

But we’re also beyond a crisis point in which news organizations would be wise to incorporate media literacy education into their reporting and the structure of their print editions, websites and social media presence.

How about pinned Facebook and Twitter posts on the characteristics of a legitimate news story vs. “fake news?” Maybe checklists for readers to use in evaluating the veracity of what they see online should be on every news organization’s home page. How do we know this? What are the sources for it? What don’t we know?

Maybe elements of that same checklist could be incorporated into a news organization’s own everyday coverage, training readers to look for those elements in everything they read.

The damage caused to media literacy and faith in journalism in 2020 won’t be erased on Jan. 1 or when the country sees new political leadership. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers.

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