Misinformation has been an especially prominent issue for journalists since the 2016 presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trust in the media has gotten so low, that many Americans believe news organizations intentionally mislead them, according to Gallup and the Knight Foundation. That’s why it’s more important than ever for journalists to fact-check and call out misinformation.
A session at the Society of Professional Journalists Convention on Friday taught attendees how fact-checking can improve reporting, hold the powerful accountable and build trust with their audiences. Katie Sanders, the managing editor of PolitiFact, talked about finding solutions to the problem of misinformation.
The first thing journalists could do is start their own fact-checking site, like PolitiFact, which was founded in 2007. PolitiFact’s fact-checks center around politics and statements made by public officials. It gained popularity during the 2016 presidential election between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.
But, Sanders said, creating a fact-checking website takes a lot of work. What journalists can do instead is start thinking like a fact-checker. They can use more investigative techniques to embed fact checks, rather than just writing a he-said she-said story.
But misinformation also presents itself outside of politics. Alex Mahadevan, the director of MediaWise, talked about the spread of misinformation in health stories, especially amid COVID-19. Mahadevan also talked about a situation in Indianapolis where people thought schools were putting litter boxes in school bathrooms for furries, or animal character enthusiasts who dress in animal costumes.
The claim was false, and a good way to get evidence for readers is to go to the source. For this story, many talked to school administrators.
“It’s so stupid,” Mahadevan said. “If you see quotes from the administrators, having to ask them are you putting litter boxes in schools and then having to say, as part of their job, no, we are not putting litter boxes in bathrooms.”
But that’s the reality of covering misinformation. Another good way to combat misinformation, as one audience member suggested, is to explain where the information came from. In this example, the litter box rumor started because of mass shootings and finding a way for kids to relieve themselves when locked in the classroom.
The panelists said an interesting thing about a lot of misinformation is that it keeps popping up. Aaron Sharockman, the executive director of PolitiFact, said part of it is because it’s “not an important claim.”
“I think people can get it in their head because it’s not a life or death consequence,” Sharockman said.
The other problem is that many people won’t fact-check. If a friend or aunt tells someone something, Sharockman said, they’re likely to just believe that person if it’s not serious enough to look up.
Sanders, Sharockman and Mahadevan also provided a checklist to keep in mind when covering misinformation.
- Contact the speaker for evidence. The speaker might be able to provide evidence for their claims.
- Look up related fact-checks. Other journalists have probably covered misinformation before, so look at what they found. Sanders also mentioned Fact Check Explorer, which is a Google tool and good resource for fact checking.
- Do basic and advanced Google searches. Google is a very useful tool that can help narrow a search. Sharockman also recommended using all types of search engines like Bing and Yahoo!.
- Consult the deep web. Sanders said reverse image searches, the Wayback Machine and Lexis-Nexis are all good toolsto try.
- Interview experts with diverse perspectives. Experts can help interpret the information. A good question to ask them, according to Sanders, is “Is there anyone you would recommend who’s considered the authority on the issue?” Journalists should be thinking about who else they can talk to.
- Look to books/authors. “There’s probably someone who’s written a book about that, and really wants to talk to you about this,” Sharockman said.
- Ask yourself: what did I miss? Sanders said journalists should ask things like “What else haven’t I looked at? Who else could I talk to? Is this really the end of the road?”