Regret the Error

Craig Silverman reports on trends and issues regarding media accuracy and the discipline of verification.Stories about errors, corrections, fact checking and verification

factchecking-100

Academic research: ‘Huge growth’ in fact checking by the media

As some wring their hands about a decline in newsroom resources and quality, there’s a “huge growth” in fact checking in the coverage of politics, according to a new academic study.

Several thousand papers were delivered at the Midwest Political Science Association conference, including, “Where and Why Do Journalists Fact-Check.” The paper contends that reporters now fact-check politicians more than ever. One co-author describes it as an “explosion” that coincides with an obvious growth in the coverage of national politics.

“Every single elite organization engages in visible fact checking of politics,” Lucas Graves of the University of Wisconsin told a small audience on Thursday as he sketched the study’s preliminary findings.

“There are scores of dedicated fact-checking outlets that didn’t exist even five years ago.”

He cited the first dedicated fact-checking site as Spinsanity, launched in 2001 by one of his co-authors, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College. Among those that have followed are Factcheck.org (2003), PolitiFact (2007) and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker (2007).

The most influential has been PolitiFact, he said, especially after it began licensing the name and methodology to various partners. It was started at the Tampa Bay Times.

There are now versions of PolitiFact in 11 states and, the authors conclude, the vast preponderance of increased political fact checking is seen in those 11 states due to the arrival of PolitFact. The study saw some increases in fact checking in the 39 other states without PolitiFact operations, albeit from often exceedingly low bases. Their methodology involved looking at the three top circulation papers in a state or a mix of top circulation papers and one that focused on covering a state capital.

Graves says that fact checking appeals to the core values, self-image and status of many journalists.

In a second related study, the authors, who include Jason Reifler of University of Exeter, assessed responses of 1,700 journalists in research funded by the American Press Institute and soon to be formally disclosed.

One group got a letter asking them to take a survey on fact checking. That letter heralded the rise of fact checking among elite media organizations.

The second group got a letter asking them to take the survey but focused on what it said was a growing consumer demand for such fact checking.

Then there was a third, so-called control group that got no letter.

In a phone conversation Sunday, Graves said there was evidence that the letters prompted more fact checking by those journalists who cover politics.

There was no seeming increase among the control group.

“At outlets where reporters got messages [letters] promoting fact checking as really important journalism, leading journalists actually did more fact checking than one who did not [get the letters].

The research was conducted prior to the 2014 mid-term elections.

On Sunday, Graves also underscored that the work by him and colleagues was focused totally on political coverage. He conceded that a perception of a decline in fact checking in many other areas of journalism was likely accurate.

Correction: Jason Reifler is from the University of Exeter, not Georgia State University. Also, the authors did find slight increases in the fact-checking done in the 39 states without PolitiFact, a previous version of this article stated that there was no increase in those states. Read more

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Plagiarism questions at Chicago paper owned by a state legislator

Better Government Association

Illinois state Sen. Steven M. Landek (D)

Illinois state Sen. Steven M. Landek (D)

The Better Government Association (BGA), a Chicago-based investigative journalism nonprofit, has accused the editors of the Desplaines Valley News of plagiarizing numerous stories in a series of unsigned editorials. The co-owners of the paper are Illinois state Sen. Steven M. Landek (D) and former Chicago Sun-Times editorial page editor Mark Hornung, who resigned from that position in 1995 after being accused of plagiarism.

In the article published yesterday, reporters with the BGA claimed that 14 editorials published in the suburban weekly contained similar or identical language found in stories published by other news outlets around the country, including The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and seven additional journals and web sites.

As the editorials were unsigned, there’s no direct indication that Hornung authored any of the pieces. The BGA story cites an unnamed “person familiar with the paper’s operation,” who claims that Hornung writes many of the Valley News editorials himself.

The BGA also raised ethical questions about the newspaper’s habit of accepting advertising from cities in Landek’s district. In addition, the BGA noted that the Village of Bridgeview, where Landek also serves as mayor, has hired Hornung as a “consultant.”

Hornung’s previous problems with plagiarism occured in 1995, when he resigned as editorial page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times after he was caught lifting significant passages from a Washington Post editorial and including them in one of his columns. He then became vice president of circulation for the newspaper until 2001, when he became publisher of the Daily Southtown, which was owned by Hollinger International Inc., then the parent company of the Sun-Times. Hornung was forced to resign as publisher amid Sun-Times officials admitted that under his leadership, the paper overstated its circulation figures.

Neither Hornung nor Landek responded to requests from Poynter for comment for this story. But on March 11, after it became clear that the BGA was investigating the plagiarism charges, Landek published a short announcement in the Desplaines Valley News. “Our unsigned editorial page contained similarities in topics and facts from stories featured openly in the national debate,” Landek admitted. “We should have cited more of our source material in our unsigned pieces.”

Landek has also promised that the paper has “removed archived content from our website following a request from a publisher” and “tightened internal controls regarding unsigned content.”

Related: Is it original? An editor’s guide to identifying plagiarism

Correction: Headline originally said legislature and has been changed to legislator. Read more

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rohinni-meter

How the Rouhani Meter fact-checks Iran’s president from 6,000 miles away

This article was republished with permission by the Duke Reporters’ Lab. Daniel Carp is a senior researcher at Duke University.

The capital of Iran’s fact-checking movement is not in Tehran, but Toronto.

When Farhad Souzanchi wanted to promote government accountability in his home country of Iran and track the campaign promises of President Hassan Rouhani, his only choice was to open an office in Canada, more than 6,000 miles away. For the last 18 months, the Rouhani Meter — a unique fact-checking website because it is run remotely from another country — has broken new ground in fact-checking journalism.

Since Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as Iran’s seventh president Aug. 3, 2013, Souzanchi and has team have been tracking and updating a list of promises made during Rouhani’s campaign and the first 100 days of presidency. The project, a collaborative effort between ASL19, a research organization that helps Iranians circumvent Iran’s internet censorship, and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, has researched 73 promises and rated them as Achieved, In Progress, Not Achieved or Inactive.

“When Rouhani came, he campaigned on hope and presented himself as a moderate. He said he would fix the image of Iran on the international stage, and with that came a lot of exciting promises,” Souzanchi said. “Our main goal was to promote conversation over these issues — government accountability and government transparency.”

There is virtually no transparency in Iran, which ranks 173rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 World Press Freedom Index. The Rouhani Meter is currently the only active fact-checking project in the entire Middle East.

In a world with a 24-hour news cycle and a growing global fact-checking movement, politicians in countries with a free press are growing accustomed to having their words scrutinized. In the United States, White House aides and members of Congress often cite fact-checking websites. But you won’t find Iranian officials citing the Rouhani Meter—they won’t even acknowledge the site’s existence.

“President Rouhani once said that people are monitoring us through the Internet. It was an indirect mention of it,” Souzanchi said. “But they haven’t addressed Rouhani Meter directly. They don’t want to legitimize it.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 11.54.13 AMTo date, the Rouhani Meter has followed 73 promises made be Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his campaign and first 100 days in office.

Working from across the Atlantic Ocean, access to reliable information is the biggest challenge the Rouhani Meter staff faces in its day-to-day reporting. Iran’s government maintains tight control over public information. ASL19 policies dictate that their reporting cannot involve collaboration with sources inside Iran, which would pose a risk to the sources’ safety.

The Rouhani Meter is forced to follow the Iranian press and collaborate with journalists working outside the country to check the president’s promises, a tactic that has impressed researchers who study the global fact-checking movement.

“It’s hard to imagine how you go about that without having access to data from the government or groups within the country,” said Lucas Graves, assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “With how complicated and nuanced these questions very often get, even a seemingly-straight-forward fact-check sometimes takes several days to research. Having seen these processes up close, I can’t imagine the difficulties of having to do this from halfway around the world.”

Without an error to date, the site’s painstakingly meticulous process has paid dividends.

Of the 73 registered promises on the Rouhani Meter, 11 percent are considered “Achieved” and 36 percent are designated “In Progress.” Five percent of promises are labeled “Not Achieved,” with the remaining 48 percent inactive. Promises on the site are broken down into four categories—socio-cultural, domestic policy, economy and foreign policy, which were the pillars of Rouhani’s campaign.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 12.03.47 PMA sample of some of the socio-cultural promises the Rouhani Meter is currently tracking.

Some promises are easy to check. For example, Rouhani’s promise to re-open Iran’s House of Cinema was easily verified when the theater was opened Sept. 12 by deputy culture minister Hojjatollah Ayoubi. Rouhani’s plan to establish a Ministry of Women is yet to come to fruition, so the promise is designated as “Not Achieved.” Other promises are much more difficult to track, particularly those involving the economy. With little economic data available (and healthy doses of skepticism about that data’s validity), tracking Rouhani’s pledge to increase Iran’s economic growth poses a major challenge. The promise is currently designated by the Rouhani Meter as “In Progress.”

Since its launch on the day of Rouhani’s inauguration, the site has been visited more than 20 million times by 3.6 million unique visitors across the world. The Rouhani Meter is available in English, but the site’s Farsi version makes up more than 95 percent of its traffic. Reports on the site are often written in Farsi before being translated to English, but Souzanchi said that process varies.

Viewing the site from inside Iran presents a challenge all its own. A month after the site launched, it was blocked by the Iranian government. It can still be accessed with Internet circumvention tools and virtual private networks.

Souzanchi indicated that a lack of mainstream accessibility does not affect readership. Internet circumvention is a way of life in the tech-savvy nation of Iran, where nearly three-fourths of the country’s population is under the age of 40.

Iranians are accustomed to using circumvention tools so they can access popular websites Facebook and Twitter, so they can easily use them to see the Rouhani Meter.

“It hasn’t been a problem reaching people,” Souzanchi said.

Despite the Rouhani Meter’s goal to give Iranian citizens access to information, the project has some opponents inside the country’s borders. Much of this is because Souzanchi was inspired to start the site after seeing the Morsi Meter in Egypt, which tracked promises made by President Mohamed Morsi until he was overthrown in a coup.

Because Morsi was ultimately overthrown, conservative Iranians have attacked the Rouhani Meter because they fear the website conspires to carry out similar plots in Iran—a claim that Souzanchi says is not true.

“My answer to those who accuse Rouhani Meter of overthrowing President Rouhani is that our project is not about that,” Souzanchi said. “It is about encouraging political accountability in government. We, and I believe all healthy promise tracking platforms, are focused on accurate reporting based on strong research. Our reports on promises, which may be sometimes positive or negative, are always backed by the best data we have access to.

“In order to be a reliable and transparent source of information, promise trackers cannot and will not side with or against political leadership. Meters and fact-checking websites are ultimately there to help citizens to make informed, evidence-based decisions in a democratic process—and if we did our job, encourage healthy discussion.”

As the site continues to grow, the Rouhani Meter team has launched the Majlis Monitor, a new website that tracks activities in the Iranian parliament. Souzanchi also is looking for ways to expand its coverage to Iranians around the world.

A more challenging long-term goal is the expansion from promise-checking into fact-checking, which Graves said would be an even tougher task for an organization that works remotely. But the organization that refuses to let an ocean, opaque government activities and censored internet access stand in their way thinks it is up to the challenge.

“Through close collaborations with experts, activists, Iran-focused institutions and of course crowdsourcing hopefully we can overcome the challenges of limited access to information as much as possible,” Souzanchi said. Read more

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QuartzExperiments

Quartz experiment: Shades of gray distinguish facts from hearsay

As of Sunday night, there remained many unknown elements about the over-the-top subscription service that HBO will launch this year. CEO Richard Plepler confirmed back in October that the premium cable channel would offer the service in 2015. But what would it be called, when would it launch, and on what device(s)?

Quartz writer Adam Epstein wanted to do a story that summarized what was confirmed, likely to be true and as yet unknown about the HBO service. The challenge was to mix information with three different levels of confirmation in a way that readers could understand, while not ruining the flow of the article.

“I had the idea for the piece after browsing Reddit and seeing that despite there being a ton of interest in the upcoming service, there was still some misinformation floating around,” Epstein said by email. “Originally, I wanted to write an all-encompassing guide, but we decided that probably wouldn’t read very well and would quickly become obsolete once the next piece of information trickled in. We knew then that it should be something that could be easily updated.”

News organizations faced with covering an evolving story that offers a mixture of verified and unverified information today often turn to the “What We Know About X” formula. That’s what Variety did after Plepler’s October announcement, for example. Sometimes those articles combine a What We Know section with a related one about What We Don’t Know, as was the case with this Vox story.

More commonly, and as described in detail in my recent research report for the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, journalists flag unconfirmed items for readers by using hedging language  “reportedly” “claimed” and attribution formulations “according to”.

Epstein and Quartz senior editor Zach Seward decided to to try something new. The result is a story that used color shades to communicate information with different levels of confirmation.

Bolded text was fully confirmed. Regular text was used for items that had been reported by what they considered to be reputable sources. Lighter text was used for unconfirmed claims and information.

As with this paragraph:

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 9.45.53 PM

To help readers process what they were seeing, the story came with a color key at the top:

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 8.37.38 PM

Along with the key, Epstein also listed all of the sources for his information at the bottom of the story.

“We weren’t really sure how to weave the sources into the text, because the blue URLs would ruin the design,” Epstein said. “So we put them at the end.”

The plan was to update the shading of different parts of the story as new details were confirmed about the HBO service. Epstein didn’t have to wait long: On Monday, HBO’s Plepler was onstage at Apple’s Spring Forward to announce that the service, to be called HBO Now, would debut exclusively on Apple TV. 

Here’s a gif showing a screenshot of the lead of the story as it first appeared, and the current text (which has more items in bold):

QZanimation

One question about this new approach is whether readers are able to process what they’re reading and simultaneously apply the color shade information. Do they process the information and the associated visual cue at the same time? The closest research I’m aware of that may apply relates to so-called innuendo headlines. An example of one of this would be: Is HBO’s new over-the-top service launching on Apple TV?

In the case of innuendo headlines, research has found that our brains first process the assertion at the core of the claim. Then we subsequently apply the question mark, which is of course there as a way to suggest that we don’t in fact know the answer. The end result is that readers associate the claim being made with the entity and don’t add much in the way of caveats. Psychologist Daniel H. Wegner outlined the effect in his paper, “Innuendo and Damage to Reputations”:

Information that is conveyed through questions, denials, or even qualifications (e.g., this possibility may not be true) is understood first, and is then cognitively reprocessed and imbued with the internal equivalent of the logical “not.” The “not” qualifier becomes, then, what may be a superfluous addendum to the stored information.

Could text shading be more effective? It would be interesting to study.

For now, what’s positive is that Quartz is trying new formats and approaches for communicating unverified information in a story, and with ways of updating and evolving said story.

The more journalists and news organizations test new ideas, the more likely they’ll develop an approach that can scale and become widely adopted. 

“Reality is messy, and we wanted a way to reflect that without encumbering the reader. It’s too early to tell if this format worked,” Seward said. “We’re just experimenting with this one piece for now and will keep it updated as there’s new information.” Read more

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UK Guardian retracts key parts of Whisper stories

Wall Street Journal | Guardian

Last October, the UK Guardian ran a contentious story alleging that managers of Whisper, a mobile app that is designed to enable users to send messages anonymously, learned that the paper was investigating them and rewrote their terms of service and privacy policies, in possible violation of federal law. Today, the newspaper issued a “clarification” to its original story, writing that the company’s managers had in fact rewrote its terms of service two months earlier, before the newspaper began its investigation.

Guardian reporters Paul Lewis and Dominic Rushe claimed that Whisper was encouraging its users to share personal data with the company with the tacit expectation that Whisper would keep this information private, when in fact it was sharing some information with the United States Department of Defense. In addition, they claimed, Whisper managers rewrote their terms of service four days after they learned that the Guardian was investigating the company.

In fact, Guardian editors now acknowledge, Whisper’s amendment to its terms of service happened before the newspaper began researching the story.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian has pulled an opinion essay denouncing Whisper’s practices.

Here is the text of the clarification:

Since we published our stories about Whisper between 16 October and 25 October 2014, the company has provided further information. We confirm that Whisper had drafted the changes to its terms of service and privacy policy before Whisper became aware that the Guardian was intending to write about it. We reported that IP addresses can only provide an approximate indication of a person’s whereabouts, not usually more accurate than their country, state or city. We are happy to clarify that this data (which all internet companies receive) is a very rough and unreliable indicator of location. We are also happy to make clear that the public cannot ascertain the identity or location of a Whisper user unless the user publicly discloses this information, that the information Whisper shared with the US Department of Defense’s Suicide Prevention Office did not include personal data, and that Whisper did not store data outside the United States. Whisper’s terms for sharing information proactively with law enforcement authorities where there is a danger of death or serious injury is both lawful and industry standard. The Guardian did not report that any of Whisper’s activities were unlawful. However, we are happy to clarify that there is no evidence for that suggestion. Whisper contests many other aspects of our reporting. The Guardian has clarified an article about Whisper’s terms of service and removed an opinion piece entitled “Think you can Whisper privately? Think again”.

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dress250

The lesson from the dress color debate that every journalist needs to know

dress

Yesterday’s insane Internet debate over the color of a dress offers a critical lesson that every journalist must incorporate into their daily work.

This lesson has nothing to do with viral content, fashion, BuzzFeed, social media, the future of media, Tumblr, or audience engagement.

Many of us looked at a very simple photo of a dress and saw something different. This had nothing to do with intelligence, experience, fashion sense or any other personal characteristic.

We are all at the mercy of our brains and its cognitive processes. Our eyes took in the information in front of us, our brains processed it, and in many cases it gave us the wrong answer. But the fact that it was coming from our brain meant that it seemed like exactly the right answer. People insisted on what they were seeing because it was what they were actually seeing.

We don’t go about our daily lives assuming that own brains — and our eye — can give us faulty information.

They do, all the time.

The simple truth is our brains process information in ways that can lead us astray. This is something every journalist needs to be aware of and account for in the work we do.

We have cognitive biases that affect how we gather, evaluate and retain information. We suffer from pareidolia, “the human tendency to read significance into random or vague stimuli (both visual and auditory).” We see patterns where there aren’t any.

Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor’s book “The Ravenous Brain” explains our desire to find order amidst chaos. Here’s a relevant excerpt quoted by Brain Pickings:

Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding.

It sound like a good thing, and it can be. But it can also lead us astray, Bor writes:

One problematic corollary of this passion for patterns is that we are the most advanced species in how elaborately and extensively we can get things wrong. We often jump to conclusions — for instance, with astrology or religion. We are so keen to search for patterns, and so satisfied when we’ve found them, that we do not typically perform sufficient checks on our apparent insights.

The dress is a reminder that we sometimes see things that aren’t there, misperceive what’s right in front of us, and otherwise fall victim to our own brains.

This is particularly true when it comes to the way we process information. Once we have made up our minds — or decided on an angle for our story — we assimilate information in accordance with that view.

“[W]e humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not,” wrote Cordelia Fine, the author of “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, in The New York Times.”

Journalists are told to be aware of the biases of sources. But we must also be constantly aware of, and seeking to mitigate, our own cognitive biases.

My new Tow Centre research report about online rumors and how news organizations debunk misinformation offered a look at several cognitive biases that leads us and others astray, and that make debunking difficult.

Below is an edited excerpt from my report that outlines five phenomena and biases that every journalist needs to be aware of in our daily work.

So, from now on, when we’re gathering information, speaking with people, and selecting what to include and emphasize and what to exclude, think of that dress.

Let it be a reminder of the fact that what we think we are seeing, hearing and understanding may in fact have no connection to fact.

The Backfire Effect

In a post on the blog You Are Not So Smart, journalist David McRaney offered a helpful one-sentence definition of the backfire effect: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

McRaney delved further into the backfire effect in his book, You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself. He offered this summary of how it manifests itself in our minds and actions:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the process by which we cherry-pick data to support what we believe. If we are convinced of an outcome, we will pay more attention to the data points and information that support it. Our minds, in effect, are made up and everything we see and hear conforms to this idea. It’s tunnel vision.

A paper published in the “Review of General Psychology”defined it as “the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.”

Here’s how a Wall Street Journal article translated its effects for the business world: “In short, your own mind acts like a compulsive yes-man who echoes whatever you want to believe.”

Confirmation bias makes us blind to contradictory evidence and facts. For journalists, it often manifests itself as an unwillingness to pay attention to facts and information that go against our predetermined angle for a story.

Motivated Reasoning

Psychologist Leon Festinger wrote, “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

We think of ourselves as rational beings who consider the evidence and information placed in front of us. This is often not the case. We are easily persuaded by information that fits with our beliefs and we harshly judge and dismiss contradictory details and evidence. Our ability to reason is therefore affected (motivated) by our preexisting beliefs.

“In particular, people are motivated to not only seek out information consis- tent with their prior attitudes, beliefs, and opinions, but also readily accept attitude-confirming evidence while critically counterarguing attitude- challenging information,” wrote Brian E. Weeks, in his paper “Feeling is Believing? The Influence of Emotions on Citizens’ False Political Beliefs.” “Information supporting one’s prior attitude is more likely to be deemed credible and strong, while attitude-discrepant information is often viewed as weak and ultimately dismissed.”

Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are similar in many ways. In “Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind,” psychologist Gary Marcus expressed the difference this way: “Whereas confirmation bias is an automatic tendency to notice data that fit with our beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more carefully if we don’t like them than if we do.”

Biased Assimilation

Fitting well with motivated reasoning is the process of biased assimilation. Read more

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Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 12.45.40 PM

Move quickly, keep it simple and other tips for debunking

I recently completed a research project that saw me spend several months studying how news organizations handle online rumors and unverified claims. I also examined best practices for debunking online misinformation. This work, which was the focus of my fellowship with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, is collected in a report I published this week.

It examines the human factors that drive rumors, the challenge of debunking online misinformation, and it provides a data-driven look at the bad practices that cause news websites to spread dubious rumors, and to play a role in disseminating misinformation. Identifying the challenges and problems in this area also helped me formulate a set of recommendations for newsrooms. This guidance can help journalists do a better job of offering debunkings that can spread the truth.

Below is an excerpt from the report that includes recommendations for offering effective debunkings. I welcome suggestions and feedback, and I also encourage more journalists to include an element of debunking in their work. It’s all of our job to help the truth to spread.

Recommendations for Newsrooms: Debunking

Don’t be part of the problem.

It bears repeating that news organizations should not be in the business of spreading misinformation and dubious rumors. News sites that are perceived to be wastelands of unverified information will not be effective debunkers. They will simply not be trusted.

Move quickly.

False information becomes harder to dislodge the longer it goes unchallenged. The more that people see an incorrect headline, image, video, etc., in their social media feeds and emails, the more they are likely to believe it.

The first step is to be more active at flagging unconfirmed information when it begins to spread. Communicate what isn’t known and help people understand they need to apply a level of skepticism. When something is verified as false, be fast and aggressive in getting it out.

Don’t be negative or dismissive.

As the skeptics interviewed for this paper said, the goal is to debunk an idea or claim, not the person who may be sharing it. Debunkings should not make people feel stupid or attacked. Research has found that “conciliatory rebuttals were more effective than were inflammatory ones,” according to DiFonzo and Bordia in Rumor Psychology.

Provide a counter narrative.

This is one of the most important debunking strategies. The goal is to replace the existing narrative in a person’s mind with new facts. It’s more effective than a piecemeal approach to refuting rumors. Humans are attracted to stories, not a recitation of information.

Anthony Pratkanis, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told The Boston Globe that a denial alone isn’t effective. “The more vivid that replacement is, the better,” Pratkanis said. Journalists should use all the storytelling tools available to make a debunking compelling and persuasive. Don’t be a spoilsport denier—tell a great story.

Keep it simple.

Journalists are sometimes guilty of overkill. We think that laying out all the facts in detail is an effective way to convince someone that they are misinformed. The reality is that misinformation often takes hold because it is communicated in a simple way, or through powerful phrases (i.e., “rumor bombs”). A debunking must be equally efficient. “A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction,” according to The Debunking Handbook [PDF]. “The solution is to keep your content lean, mean and easy to read.” If people have to expend too much processing-power to grasp your point and evidence, they will retreat to what they already know.

Understand the role of emotion and passion in driving shares and traffic.

In a 2012 paper, a group of researchers, including the authors of The Debunking Handbook, outlined the role of emotions in helping information propagate:

“Stories containing content likely to evoke disgust, fear, or happiness are spread more readily from person to person and more widely through social media than are neutral stories.” Rumors and hoaxes often appeal to people’s emotions, as well as their existing beliefs and fears. Debunking should therefore also aim to evoke emotion in readers. (But to do so in a genuine, rather than manipulative, way.)

Find the right source(s).

Some of the most powerful purveyors of misinformation are people who passionately believe the claim. False information also spreads when people who have standing in particular communities give it authority and visibility.

“Accordingly, the most effective ‘misinformers’ about vaccines are parents who truly believe that their child has been injured by a vaccine,” according to a 2012 paper “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.”

Another 2012 paper from Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, “Misinformation and Fact-checking: Research Findings from Social Science,” outlined the important role sources play in communicating information:

A vast literature in psychology and political science has shown that statements are frequently more persuasive when they come from sources that are perceived as knowledgeable, trustworthy, or highly credible. Conversely, people are less likely to accept information from a source that is perceived as poorly informed, untrustworthy, not sharing the same values, etc.

Journalists need to think about how they can buttress a debunking through sourcing. Whenever possible, find a member of the community in question to voice the correct information. His or her words and presence will help reach the people who are most likely to suffer from the backfire effect.

Express in the positive.

Try to limit association with the incorrect information. The authors of The Debunking Handbook offer a diagram of an effective approach for presenting the correct information in a way that minimizes repeating misinformation:

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 12.34.58 PM

Make it visual.

Visual presentation of information can help people get past biases and instead focus on the information being communicated. “Graphics appear to be an effective means of communicating information, especially about trends that may be the subject of misperceptions (the state of the economy under a given president, the number of casualties in a war, etc.),” wrote Nyhan and Reifler.

Experiment.

The above is a summary of the best current advice regarding debunking …. Some suggestions have years of research to back them up. Others have yet to be tested experimentally, let alone in newsrooms.

This leads to perhaps the most important task for journalists: experiment. Digitally savvy journalists and news organizations must dedicate resources to testing and iterating on different debunking (and rumor reporting) approaches. By testing different story formats, we can collectively gather additional insight into what works. Read more

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Report: Online media are more a part of the problem of misinformation ‘than they are the solution’

On Tuesday evening, Craig Silverman will present his report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, where he is a fellow. In the more than 100-page paper entitled “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content,” Silverman examines the role online media plays in spreading rumors and hoaxes. In the report, Silverman, adjunct faculty for Poynter, writes:

Too often news organizations play a major role in propagating hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumors, and dubious viral content, thereby polluting the digital information stream. Indeed some so-called viral content doesn’t become truly viral until news websites choose to highlight it. In jumping on unverified information and publishing it alongside hedging language, such as “reportedly” or “claiming,” news organizations provide falsities significant exposure while also imbuing the content with credibility. This is at odds with journalism’s essence as “a discipline of verification” and its role as a trusted provider of information to society

Using Emergent, the rumor-tracking site he created, Silverman reports that he examined more than 1,500 news articles on more than 100 rumors appearing online in the last four months of 2014. Those rumors include total hoaxes, like the woman with three breasts, and real news events where reporting created or increased the spread of rumors, including the non-outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. and the crash of flight MH370.

Here are a few key points from Silverman’s report:

– Journalists write about rumors and use a few key words to show they know the rumors are dubious, but the public may not get that.

News organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations (“reportedly,” “claims,”etc.) to convey that information they are passing on is unverified. They frequently use headlines that express the unverified claim as a question (“Did a woman have a third breast added?”). However, research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences. These approaches lack consistency and journalists rarely use terms and disclosures that clearly convey which elements are unverified and why they are choosing to cover them.

– Journalists and news organizations are doing very little to confirm a story before writing about it.

Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well. The story’s point of origin, once traced back through the chain of links, is often something posted on social media or a thinly sourced claim from a person or entity.

– Journalists and news orgs often use headlines that make bolder claims than the actual facts of the story and, again, readers may not see the difference.

This has serious implications for how news consumers process information about rumors. The overall concern, which academic research backs up, is that readers retain information from headlines more so than from body text. If readers first see a declarative headline, subsequent nuance in the article’s text is unlikely to modify the original message.

– Journalists and news organizations rarely follow up after publishing a rumor.

News organizations are inconsistent at best at following up on the rumors and claims they offer initial coverage. This is likely connected to the fact that they pass them on without adding reporting or value. With such little effort put into the initial rewrite of a rumor, there is little thought or incentive to follow up. The potential for traffic is also greatest when a claim or rumor is new. So journalists jump fast, and frequently, to capture traffic. Then they move on.

In his research, Silverman quotes several people with advice on why debunking and verification matter, as well as times and places where it has worked successfully. He also has some recommendations. They include:

– “Set a standard.”
– “Evaluate before you propagate.”
– “Avoid dissonance.”
– “Plant a flag and update.”

You can watch Silverman’s presentation of his paper Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern here.

Related: Silverman has taught several Webinars at Poynter’s News University on verification, including “Getting It Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age” and “Don’t Get Fooled Again: Best Practices for Online Verification.” Read more

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Veterans force NBC’s Brian Williams to apologize

NBC News anchor Brian Williams said on the evening broadcast Wednesday that he made a mistake when he said on air last week that he had been in a military helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the early days of the American invasion of Iraq 12 years ago.

On Friday, Williams had told a story on air about a veteran he met in Iraq. They stayed in touch over the years and Williams invited the soldier to a hockey game. At the game, they were surprised that the game announcer told the crowd about the chance encounter after Williams’ chopper was shot down.

Williams said on the air:

“The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG. Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”

The story was repeated by the announcer at the hockey game.

After the story aired, soldiers who served in Iraq began complaining.

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Stars and Stripes Capital Hill reporter Travis Tritten first reported  Wednesday that he noticed the chatter on Facebook and began “pulling threads.” Tritten told me, “Your gut tells you there is something there you have to look into.”

Tritten spoke with several officers and soldiers who were on the ground in Iraq and had first-hand knowledge of the RPG incident, he said.

Tritten became convinced that Williams was on a helicopter that was behind the one that was hit. “It appears they were far behind, in a different formation of aircraft,” he said.  Some of those who posted on Facebook said the NBC crew was up to an hour behind the chopper that was hit.

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“A lot of these crew members have been pissed off about this since 2003. One guy says every time he sees Brian Williams he starts to shake, he is so angry,” Tritten said.

This NBC Dateline video from March 26, 2003 — soon after the attack – has Williams reporting that one of the choppers ahead of him had taken a direct hit from an RPG. The video does not show the attack and it is not clear how close the attack was to Williams’ ride.

Go to 2:12 on this video to hear about the attack on the helicopter convoy.
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Contrary to what the soldiers who complained on Facebook claimed, the 2003 story appears to be reporting that the chopper hit by the RPG was in the same formation as Williams was flying in. In fact, Williams reported in 2003, the incident was so fresh when the helicopters landed that the crew from the helicopter that was hit by the RPG was too shaken to talk on camera.

NBC Publicity pointed me to a note that Williams posted on Facebook saying he “felt terrible” about making the mistake and he had “no desire to fictionalize the incident.” He said the “constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area and the fog of memory over 12 years made me conflate the two.”

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This was not the first time he told the story of the incident.

In May 2008, Williams wrote on NBC News’ blog that it was not the chopper he was riding in, but one in front of him that was hit by an RPG.

I was with my friend and NBC News Military Analyst Wayne Downing, a retired 4-Star Army General. Wayne and I were riding along as part of an Army mission to deliver bridge components to the Euphrates River, so that the invading forces of the 3rd Infantry could cross the river on their way to Baghdad. We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG’s and AK-47′s. The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down — for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights.

In early 2010, when Williams spoke at a commencement at Notre Dame, the school’s website included a bio that mentioned the RPG hitting a chopper, but that version of the story was different. The bio didn’t say the RPG hit the chopper Williams was in:

While covering the war in Iraq, Williams became the first NBC News correspondent to reach Baghdad after the U.S. military invasion of the city. Just days into the war, Williams was traveling on a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter mission when the lead helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. Williams spent three days and two nights in the Iraqi desert south of Najaf, with a mechanized armored tank platoon of the Army’s Third Infantry Division providing protection. During the war, Williams traveled to seven nations throughout the Middle East during his seven-week overseas deployment.

On March 23, 2013, 10 years to the day after the helicopter incident, Brian Williams appeared on the David Letterman Show and told the story of being shot at.
Go to 2:58 in the video to hear him tell the story.
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Williams said, “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK 47.”

He told Letterman, “We figure out how to land safely and we did. We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans.”

Williams mentioned the controversy Wednesday evening on NBC Nightly News:

“On this broadcast last week, in an effort to honor a veteran who protected me and so many others, after a ground-fire incident in the desert in the Iraq War invasion I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert.  I want to apologize.
I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. We landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert.

This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served everywhere while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect and also now, my apology.”

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Brian Williams apology on NBC News. Read more

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The year in media errors and corrections 2014

Correction of the Year

This New York Times correction combines Kimye, butts and a writer treating a fake news website and a fake radio station as real. Bravo:

An earlier version of this column was published in error. That version included what purported to be an interview that Kanye West gave to a Chicago radio station in which he compared his own derrière to that of his wife, Kim Kardashian. Mr. West’s quotes were taken, without attribution, from the satirical website The Daily Currant. There is no radio station WGYN in Chicago; the interview was fictitious, and should not have been included in the column.

Runner Up

The Sun (U.K.) offered a correction that detailed just how ridiculous their original “reporting” was:

In an article ‘London Bridge IS Falling Down’ (16 June) we stated that the iconic bridge, now a tourist attraction in Arizona, was falling into disrepair and could soon be bulldozed. We also stated that there were plans to turn the area into a centre for drug tourism. We have been assured by Lake Havasu City that there are no plans to knock down the bridge or to build a centre for drug tourism. We regret any misunderstanding and are happy to set the record straight.

A Lake Havasu spokesman also assures us there are plans to revitalise the English Village on the east side of the bridge and that they are committed to looking after the monument.

Other Favorites

Philadelphia Daily News (via Romenesko):

In yesterday’s “Chillin’ Wit” column, a fond farewell to former Daily News editor Zack Stallberg as he heads west to New Mexico, stall berg was misquoted as using the term “horse manure.” He responded: “I demand a correction. Does anyone really think I would use the word ‘manure’?” No. Stall berg actually said, “horse s—-.” And that’s no bull manure.

The Economist:

In a leader last month (Of bongs and bureaucrats, January 11th) we said that The Economist first proposed legalising drugs in 1993. In fact we argued for it in a cover story in 1988. Who says drug use doesn’t damage long-term memory?

The New York Times:

An article on Thursday about the latest Internet sensation of “Alex from Target,” a picture of a teenager bagging merchandise at the retailer that went viral online, described incorrectly a subsequent Internet posting of “Kel from Good Burger.” It was a frame from the 1997 film “Good Burger” starring the actor Kel Mitchell; it was not a photograph of a teenager in a job.

The Washington Post:

An earlier version of this story erroneously said that Joaquín Guzmán was found in bed with his secretary. He was found with his wife. This version has been corrected.

The Dartmouth (via Romenesko):

A front-page editorial published Oct. 17 calling for the abolition of the Greek system at Dartmouth stated that in the late 1980s, Alpha Delta fraternity pledges were forced to perform oral sex on an ejaculating dildo. The editorial should have stated that some pledges were required to simulate oral sex on an inanimate object, which the house’s advisor now says may have been a banana.

The New York Times:

An earlier version of this article described bald eagles and ospreys incorrectly. They eat fish, and their poop is white; they do not eat berries and excrete purple feces. (Other birds, like American robins, Eurasian starlings and cedar waxwings, do.)

Slate:

This post originally quoted photographer Tom Sanders as saying it takes him five years to get on the dance floor. It takes him five beers.

The Wall Street Journal:

The Minotaur is a monster in Greek mythology that is part bull, part human. A travel article in Saturday’s Off Duty section mistakenly called it a one-eyed monster.

The Sun (U.K.):

In a story ‘Britain’s biggest whinger’ {1 June] we stated that Marcus Stead, who appeard in the Channel 4 documentary The Complainers, ‘moans to the council every day for a year.’ Mr Stead says that, in fact, the number of complaints is closer to one or two per week. We are happy to put his position on record.

NPR:

An earlier version of this story said that the methane emissions associated with livestock come from their farts. In fact, most of those methane emissions come from belches.

I tried to get some background on why this girl’s mother felt the need to speak out, but you’ll just have to enjoy it for what it is. A correction from the Cumbernauld News (U.K.):

BuzzFeed:

This post originally identified the Kings as being from Sacramento, not Los Angeles. The author clearly cares much more about faceplants than sports. We regret the error.

VICE sports:

The original version of this article referred to a planet, not a place name in the Star Wars Universe. In fact, Fort Tusken, which sounds like Tustin, is located on Tatooine, Luke sky walker’s home planet. VICE Sports regrets this error. All staff editors take full responsibility and will re-watch Star Wars this weekend to ensure such errors are never repeated.

The Guardian:

An article about a conservation project to return mountain chicken frogs to Montserrat said that the endangered frog was the national dish of the island. Montserrat’s national dish is goat water, a stew; mountain chicken is the national dish of nearby Dominica.

The New York Times:

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a creature in the “Star Wars” universe. It is a wookiee, not a wookie.

Los Angeles Times:

“Big Little Man”: A review in the June 29 Arts & Books section of the book “Big Little Man” said that author Alex Tizon is in his 60s. He is 54. Also, the review described Tizon as an avid consumer of porn, but the book says the viewing was for research. It also described Tizon’s friend’s embarrassment about the size of his endowment, whereas the book states that “he liked being average.” 

San Francisco Chronicle:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post suggested that a singular being named Yar was getting his revenge in the Atari 2600 game Years’ Revenge. In fact, the Yarians were a race of aliens, and were collectively seeking revenge. The Big Event apologizes for the error.  (Thanks to TBE reader Marty for the e-mail pointing this out.)

Ayrshire Post  (U.K.):

Columbia, S.C. Free-Times Weekly (via Romenesko):

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Error of the Year: Rolling Stone’s Campus Rape Story

It should go down as one of the most cautionary tales of confirmation bias in journalism. It’s also an example of how to not to behave when your organization publishes a disastrous piece of reporting.

In November, Rolling Stone published a major feature about a shocking gang rape that allegedly occurred at a frat party at the University of Virginia. 

The story initially catalyzed the university and people around the country to do more to stamp out sexual assault on campus. The school even placed a temporary ban on all frats.

However, other news outlets — most notably The Washington Post — followed on the story and soon raised troubling details about the account that was at the center of the RS story, and the magazine’s failure to do basic reporting. One big problem was that the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, didn’t contact any of the men she accused of participating in the gang rape. Nor did she speak with key friends of the accused, even though the story includes scenes with verbatim dialogue attributed to them.

Campus rape is a serious issue and deserves attention, but Rolling Stone and its reporter cherry picked this story and failed to properly verify it. Read more

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