As the American public questions the validity of information, news organizations are working harder than ever by practicing painstakingly accurate journalism to avoid the spread of disinformation.
Joshua Johnson, host of the WAMU radio program and NPR podcast 1A, addressed the issue Monday morning with a live broadcast from USFSP about fact-checking and the avoidance of ‘fake news.’
Joined with Johnson were panel speakers Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact, Giovanni Ciampagla, research scientist and co-coordinator of Hoaxy (a digital platform that tracks the spread of misinformation through Twitter) and St. Pete’s own Kelly McBride, media ethicist and vice president of Poynter Institute’s academic programs.
Sharockman began by addressing the public’s growing skepticism toward information relayed from politicians by saying that nothing has fundamentally changed with how politicians interact with Americans.
Sharockman then spoke on the validity of PolitiFact, where every claim is processed through three editors and then sent to a jury who decides where the verdict lies on the truth-o-meter between ‘completely true’ to ‘pants on fire.’ This process is very deliberate and for good reason in such a polarized society. With claims made by politicians that are slightly false or lacking in content, the most popular result on PolitiFact is ‘half true.’ But with over 650 claims checked through PolitiFact’s ‘truth-o-meter,’ Trump has the worst record of any politician with 70 percent of the president’s claims deemed false, mostly false or ‘pants on fire.’
McBride said fact-checking is not a product of politicians but a response to the internet and how quickly false information spreads through social media. Before the internet and fact-checking, politicians had no problem stating whether a claim was true or false, but now politicians try shooting for a middle ground of truth to maintain partial credibility.
Journalism has always struggled with the idea of false equivalency where stories have to balance opposing views. Then, it’s up to the audience to form an opinion. This is not a great form of journalism, McBride states, and fact-checking rose up in response to this.
“But we at Poynter don’t preach this type of journalism,” McBride said. “And most good journalists don’t believe that’s the best way to do journalism. But when you’re operating fast, there’s not much time to figure out what the truth is.”
Ciampagla expanded on how Hoaxy tracks the spread of misinformation through social media. The platform tracks the content of low credibility sources that often publish falsehoods, conspiracies, rumors, satire, etc. and collects data on the digital whereabouts of these stories. Hoaxy makes a disclaimer that not all low credibility sources only publish false information nor do high credibility sources publish only true information.
“First of all, (bad information) spreads really fast,” Ciampagla said while sighing.
Hoaxy has discovered that misinformation spreads through all types of audiences and that a lot of people who share unverified original claims are never reached by the fact-checking site.
Ciampagla added that the spread of disinformation through bots is very strong and explained the process of social automatons. Algorithmically, a bot will mention or ‘@’ accounts with high followings and will benefit from the high traffic of the account’s feed in an attempt to fool both sides of the political spectrum with disinformation tailored to a certain party’s political stance.
McBride addressed why news organizations are so reluctant to call someone a liar while the public easily blames journalists for not holding politicians accountable.
“It’s difficult to discern motive, and that’s what has to be known in order to call someone a liar,” said McBride. “We’re either going to shout at people, call them liars and tamp down the possibility for any real dialogue. Or, we’re going to give people the benefit of the doubt, invite their conversation in and remain in a dialogue. And frankly, it’s really hard to be in a dialogue with somebody after you call them a liar.”
According to Sharockman, the spread of bad information can be stopped by the collective effort of social networks. For instance, PolitiFact is the largest fact-checking organization in the United States but is only comprised of 10 people.
“We need help,” Sharockman said. “That’s why we need companies like Google, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter to help tackle these issues together. We can’t just leave it to a group of 10 journalists or the 1,600 journalists at the New York Times to figure out the solution.”
For the full episode, more information about 1A, or any live upcoming events go, click here.
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