Journalistic responses to misinformation

Maria Kyriakidou and Stephen Cushion

Asking how journalists respond to misinformation might, in theory, appear unnecessary. After all, the ‘discipline of verification’is widely viewed as being the essence ofjournalism (Kovach & Ikosenstiel 2007, 71). Establishing the veracity of an event or issue and accurately informing the public about it are ultimately the basic principles ofjournalism. They are deeply ingrained in the ‘fourth estate role’ the news media play in holding power to account and exposing abuses of authority. However, over recent decades, attempts to manipulate information and deceive the public have become ever more sophisticated, renewing the urgency of the demands placed on journalists to respond to and counter misinformation and disinformation.

False or misleading information circulates on social media, creating misconceptions and undermining public understanding of a wide range of issues. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, false news spread as quickly as the pandemic itself on social media, notably in closed private platforms such as WhatsApp (Brennen et al. 2020). Such fake news, irrespective of its absurdity or source, is hard for journalists to ignore as it is reproduced by partisan and online news media, infiltrating and influencing public discourse (Vargo et al. 2018). At the same time, disinformation is also produced and circulated by politicians and other public figures at the forefront of political reporting (Satariano & Tsang 2019). Failing to challenge these tactics of manipulation can turn journalists into amplifiers of political propaganda. Meanwhile, the distraction of public agendas by false and misleading stories, attacks on established media by populist leaders as ‘fake news’, and increasing political polarisation contribute to the slow erosion of public trust in the media (IPSOS 2019). It is against this backdrop that journalists are called upon not only to report ‘the truth’ about current affairs but also to report on and challenge any misinformation or disinformation they encounter. This is necessary for the protection of both civic discourse and journalistic legitimacy.

In this context, academic attention has turned to exploring the ways journalism can be renewed for public good, identifying how and where disinformation or misinformation can be countered by journalists. In this chapter we review the arguments made for the evolution of journalistic practices in the face of these challenges. Although we mostly use the term misinformation throughout the chapter to refer to the spreading of false or inaccurate information, we understand the concept as being distinct from disinformation, which describes the dissemination of deliberately false information (Wardle 2018). Despite their significant differences, both types of ‘information disorder’ (Wardle 2018) potentially mislead and influence people, as well as shape media agendas, undermining public debate. The news media, in this context, have an important role to play in establishing the facts and identifying and challenging misinformation, in order to safeguard the quality of information and maintain journalistic standards in the face of public mistrust.

Although the issues and developments addressed in this chapter are affecting journalists at the global level, we primarily focus in this chapter on the UK context and, in particular, the challenges of reporting misinformation in public service media, defined by obligations to report accurately and impartially. After first introducing how journalism has attempted to address the challenges of misinformation, the second section turns to the British context and examines the ways UK journalists have dealt with contemporary mis/disinformation campaigns. The final section will address the challenges associated with effectively countering and communicating misinformation in ways that might, we argue, reinforce and promote public legitimacy in journalism.

Changing journalistic practices

The acknowledgement of disinformation as a new challenge for journalism is reflected in recently updated training and educational initiatives. UNESCO (2018), for example, published its ‘Journalism, Fake News and Disinformation’ handbook on the assumption that misinformation has constructed new conditions for journalism, requiring new skills and training. Besides the development of digital skills, in order to verify social media sources and content’ and fact check and combat online abuse, the handbook also focuses on definitions of truth, disinformation, misinformation, and fake news inviting journalists to rethink these concepts in the context of new technological, sociocultural, and normative developments. The need for this renewal and re-focus of journalistic attention stems from the fear that mis/disinformation not only renders news journalism malleable to hoaxes and political manipulation but also contributes to the weakening of public trust in the media. In this context, it is argued that journalism needs to take up a new mission to ‘proactively detect and uncover new cases and forms of disinformation’ (UNESCO 2018, 11).

This call to take proactive action entails a number of suggestions for the improvement of journalistic practices. Transparency takes a central place in such debates as a tool for increasing accountability and, by extension, public trust in journalism. Understood as openness in how journalists work, both by providing explanations about how news is made and inviting the public to partake in news-making (Karlsson & Clerwall 2018, 1923—1924), transparency has been approached with renewed interest by academics and journalists as a way of tackling misinformation and its challenges. Relevant initiatives include publicly verifying sources and facts, asking news readers to help with fact-checking, and explaining and showing audiences the processes of fact-checking. This openness about how news media deal with misinformation can allow journalists to either ‘publicly and swiftly respond to valid critiques of their work’ (UNESCO 2018, 60) or pre-emptively address any criticisms. However, although such initiatives are on the rise and have been recommended as part of an effort to regain public trust, recent research has suggested that news audiences are indifferent to journalistic transparency and even evaluate negatively user participation in the news (Karlsson & Clerwall 2018).

One long-standing practice that has been criticised in light of debates about journalists effectively countering disinformation is the ‘he said, she said’ approach to reporting, which has long been employed as a way of constructing balanced reporting, allowing for at least two sides of a story to be heard. Such a way of approaching every issue, however, can lead to false equivalence by framing the debate in misleading ways that can undermine the evidence or scientific basis of an issue. The convention of the ‘he said, she said’ reporting style has been criticised for enabling the spread of mis/disinformation in debates about vaccines (Nyhan 2013), climate change (Boykoft & Boykoff 2007), and the Brexit referendum (Damazer 2019). Even when journalists point out the facts that discredit fringe claims, the framing of the issue as a genuine debate has long-term consequences, legitimising falsehoods as valid opinions. Attempts to balance reporting in the style of‘he said, she said’can help inoculate journalists from accusations of bias, but it can also add to public confusion.

Actively resisting the practice of false balance (Amazeen 2019), the use of fact-checking has become a significant journalistic weapon in the fight against mis/disinformation. Of course, journalists have always sought to verify facts. But it is the concerted focus on determining the accuracy and truthfulness of claims, notably from political elites, that characterises factchecking initiatives (Amazeen 2019, 543). The essence of fact-checking is the reporting of mis/disinformation itself; it aims to proactively detect and uncover it. This distinguishes it from traditional internal fact-checking in news organisations, which aims to verify reporters’ sources in order to correct mistakes and falsehoods before the publication of a story (Graves 2016, 7). Fact-checking has been broadly celebrated as a professional movement of a ‘new style of political news’ that revitalises traditional journalism by holding public figures accountable for spreading disinformation and falsehoods (Graves 2016, 6). Not only can it act as a journalistic mechanism of accountability; it also constitutes a tool to help the public navigate through misinformation and falsehoods circulating in high-choice media environments. It is viewed as a central development in restoring public trust in journalism and enhancing the quality of public debate.

This turn to a proactive style of exposing falsehoods is not new as the first fact-checking organisations emerged in the US in the early 2000s, with the website FactCheck launching in 2003 and PolitiFact and Fact Checker following four years later (Graves 2016). What has been renewed in recent years, as sources of misinformation multiply in numbers and expand in reach, is the interest in fact-checking as a tool for countering disinformation in routine news reporting. This entails the move of fact-checking from the margins of independent initiatives to established media organisations. However, fact-checking is still largely discussed separately from the conventions and practices of mainstream journalism, considered to overlap with, but distinctive from, the day-to-day role of being a professional journalist. This discussion is arguably skewed by US-centric research on fact-checking (Nieminen & Rapeli 2019, 306) as American fact-checking is characterised by a distinction between professional and partisan fact-checkers, as well as the proximity of the field to academic and non-profit organisations (Graves 2016). As fact-checking initiatives soar around the world, they also display wide variations, expressive of the journalistic and political cultures within which they are embedded.

As of April 2020, according to the Duke Reporters’ Lab, there are 237 fact-checking organisations in nearly 80 countries (Stencel & Luther 2020). The differences among these organisations vary from their form and style of reporting — such as the use of rating systems to rank false claims — to substantial institutional characteristics, including levels of professionalism and funding sources. In some countries, fact-checking is conducted by the ‘fifth estate’ of bloggers, activists, academics, and NGOs (UNESCO 2018, 10). In others, fact-checking initiatives are embedded within and operated by legacy media (Graves & Cherubini 2016). This is the case in the UK, with some of the most prominent fact-checking produced by public service broadcasters. It is this journalistic context that the next section focuses on.

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