Are the Russian nationals solely to blame for election interference? Or have we allowed our news media to become useful idiots?
I landed in the media industry in the early 2000s, just as print publications were beginning to wonder how they’d handle this internet thing and just in time to be part of the last group of journalists who started their careers as fact-checkers. Fact-checking, or “research” at some publications, used to be step one for most journalists. It was the first rung on the ladder, but there was always some very obsessive and detail-oriented person who had decided to stay put and not only keep the publication honest, but also train every batch of future journalists coming through the door. Every statement had to be checked, every source vetted, and, no, Wikipedia was not acceptable back-up for anything.
In retrospect, perhaps turning the encyclopedia into user-generated content was the beginning of the so-called “post-fact” era we are living in today.
Over the next five to six years I buckled in for a wild ride that saw my industry, and my livelihood, dive into an increasingly precarious situation. Friends who worked as fact-checkers were the first to be laid off, followed closely by copy editors, and when job postings began to reappear from 2006 to 2008, no one was hiring entry-level research assistants or fact-checkers—they were looking for social media interns and editors. The fact that the people whose jobs it was to ensure accuracy were replaced by people whose jobs it was to generate clicks would become very important, as we all now know.
By 2010 or so, the skills required to attain such a job almost always included some sort of proficiency with infographics. I vividly remember writing a story about renewable energy for a well-known national site (I won’t call them out because they were doing the same thing everyone else was doing at the time) at which the environment editor had never worked on the beat. After having to explain to him how renewable energy storage worked and what the National Renewable Energy Lab was, I asked one of his colleagues where he had come from and how he had wound up with this job. “Oh, he’s like a social-media guru,” she said. “And he’s really good at infographics.”
That conversation has played over on a loop in my mind over the past year, as we’ve learned more about the role Twitter and Facebook played in influencing the election, as the term “fake news” has become the president’s response to any news he doesn’t like, and as I’ve seen media outlets increasingly take to advertising accuracy as their top asset. When I read Robert Mueller’s meticulously crafted indictments today, and watched the replays of various intelligence professionals warning the Department of Justice that “the Russians are coming,” and that social media will once again be a key tool in the 2018 elections, it was hard not to think, This could have been prevented.
The thing is, most journalists know that. In 2015, the American Press Institute conducted a survey of some 10,000 journalism school students and found that more than half of them felt the number-one threat to the industry was not media’s flailing business model or plummeting rates for journalists, but the prevalence of false information online. Newsrooms knew, too. Remember all those fact-checking projects during the 2016 election? Every debate was a rare chance for long-forgotten fact-checkers to shine.
But it’s not enough for fact-checking to be an election-year project. There needs to be more integration between social media and reporting, full stop. As Poynter stated in a story about fighting fake news last year: “It can no longer only be the work of fact-checking organizations to debunk online hoaxes.”
It’s also well past time to think of either fact-checking or social media as entry-level jobs that require no training. When the American Press Institute (API) conducted a survey of 59 U.S. newsrooms late last year and interviewed more than 100 journalists working in the industry today, study author (and director of API’s Accountability Project) Jane Elizabeth wrote that she was shocked to see that social media teams were still largely focused on generating clicks and growing followership, that newsrooms were largely viewing social media the same way now that they did in 2008. Social media staff are still largely siloed away in their own realm, separate from the reporting staff. They are typically given no news or fact-checking training.
“Our study found that a typical newsroom social media operation is largely unprepared—in structure, training and resources—to address urgent problems in journalism: the misinformation explosion and the decline of trust,” Elizabeth writes in the report.
It’s not all “the media’s” fault, of course. The industry has lost 40 percent of its labor force in the last 10 years, but added a whole new platform—social media—that requires its own content and management. “The fractured responsibilities and lack of staff can lead to a one-track mission: posting links and counting clicks,” Elizabeth writes.
But journalists do need to take some responsibility for their own roles in this problem. Ultimately, if Russian plants were able to sway the American public, that’s not solely down to the emergence of fake news sites and InfoWars, it’s also because journalists, too, were influenced by what they saw on social media. The largest group of verified users on Twitter are journalists, and they—we—are easy targets there. It’s too easy for a journalist to get so caught up in building their brand (or, in many cases, meeting their social media quota) that they don’t think twice before tweeting something false and damning. And we all know that the correction never gets the same 1,000+ retweets that the original tweet did. A 2015 study found that misinformation outweighs accurate information 3 to 1 on Twitter, but that the vast majority of Americans are “confidently wrong” about the facts they consume there. Journalists are neither immune nor blameless here. I have seen countless journalists use the “it was just a tweet!” excuse when called out for amplifying a false piece of information. But in 2018? There is no such thing as “just” anything on social media.
Journalists on Twitter are also easily baited by followers who call them out for bias, and here it’s easy to see how the myth of objectivity in journalism has been weaponized in the hands of those who would use social media to sway public opinion. Even a journalist who doesn’t react to being called, for example, a “Clinton-stan” on social media might feel the need to overcorrect any bias in their reporting. A reporter called out for liberal bias after tweeting about climate science may well feel compelled to “both-sides” the climate debate more than he or she would have. None of this is to imply that journalists are brainless or spineless or that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their work. It does mean, though, that newsrooms need to be treating social media like the loaded gun it is.
In a perfect world, everyone working in a newsroom would get a fact-checking training on their first day. That training would include Elizabeth’s preferred test for fact-checking. In her classes at Old Dominion University, she asks students to read through a news story and highlight what they would check. Back in 2015, she told the American Journalism Review that they were all missing one key thing: “They forgot to circle the quotes,” she said. “You can’t do that. You can’t say, ‘Oh, someone else said that, so we’re covered.’ If what someone says is wrong, that’s still faulty information you’re spreading, and that’s a problem.”
At a minimum, newsrooms need to start taking social media seriously and seeing it as not just a search engine optimization tool, but also as a reporting tool that needs to be handled with care.
The good news is that the wind is, for once, at the backs of newsrooms on this endeavor. Everyone wants to tackle fake news these days, and there’s more money being put toward that endeavor than there has been in the past decade. Google and Facebook have both joined the First Draft Coalition, funded by Google, which aims to promote media literacy and crack down on fake news. The API’s Accountability Project is doing some great work schooling newsrooms, and Poynter just bought PolitiFact, with the intention of expanding its reach. ProPublica has provided a great example for integrating social media into the newsroom in the form of an “engagement reporter” who uses social media and “the power of the crowd” to find stories and help spread them throughout the newsroom.
Here’s hoping all that means there are at least fewer “the media missed the story” stories about this year’s election.
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