U.S. newsrooms are 'largely unprepared' to address misinformation online

While fact-checking organizations around the world are tackling online misinformation in new and innovative ways, typical American newsrooms are lagging behind.

A new report released today by the American Press Institute highlights some of the challenges facing American newsrooms online — and it doesn’t look pretty. The report, which focuses on how publications are using social media to address misinformation and declining trust, found that most newsrooms are woefully unprepared to tackle those challenges.

They’re using social media like it’s still 2008.

“News publishers are facing other issues spawned and cultivated by modern social media: the proliferation of misinformation and ‘fake news,’ and its role in the decline of trust in professional media,” the report reads. “(But) social media teams, on the front lines of both issues, still are largely doing what they’ve done for a decade.”

Drawing upon a survey of 59 U.S. newsrooms ranging from single to quadruple-digit staffs, the report found that most publications are still using social media — mainly Facebook and Twitter — simply to distribute links to their own content. More distressing is the finding that the majority of newsrooms only “sometimes” or “very rarely” address misinformation on social media and in the comments.

In addition to the unscientific newsroom surveys, Jane Elizabeth, author of the report and a 2017 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow, told Poynter she spoke with more than 100 journalists and visited several newsrooms. Her observations weren’t very positive.

“I think I was a little surprised to find that the same issues that we’re finding generally in newsrooms — like the silos and the digital/print divide — it still exists even with social media, which is sort of a new digital piece that you think would have worked itself into the newsroom culture,” she said. “But it hasn’t.”

Elizabeth, who’s also the director of the Accountability Journalism Program at API (and a co-author of the International Fact-Checking Network’s weekly newsletter), said she was surprised to find that some social media producers were hesitant to reach out to political reporters and help them promote their stories online. And with U.S. campaigns gearing up for elections in 2018 and 2020, newsrooms have to change now in order to deal with the coming onslaught of online misinformation, according to the report. 

In short: It can no longer only be the work of fact-checking organizations to debunk online hoaxes.

“There really is very little leadership and very little strategic thinking about what he social media team should be doing and how they can help with the problem of fake news, misinformation,” Elizabeth said, “which makes no sense, because these people are on the frontlines of misinformation every single day. They are seeing these things more than anyone and they weren’t empowered to do anything about it.”

To improve U.S. newsrooms’ strategy when it comes to fighting fake news and declining reader trust, the report recommends a three-pronged approach:

  1. Finding and fighting misinformation, as journalists on the front lines of “fake news” 
  2. Engaging audiences with a goal of increasing trust in professional reporting 
  3. Participating as full partners in the newsroom’s accountability reporting efforts

Based on her research, Elizabeth said that starts with changing the way journalists think about social media positions.

“We’re still considering social media as an entry-level job, and that’s very clear from the job postings you see,” she said. “I don’t think we’re in a position anymore to say you can hire inexperienced people anymore for social media.”

Instead of viewing social media producers as support positions, Elizabeth said local newsrooms must start viewing them as an integral part of the reporting process. And in order to effectively combat misinformation and grow reader trust, publishers should be designating people to debunk viral hoaxes during breaking news situations such as the mass shooting at a Texas church earlier this month.

“It’s so crucial right now to actually assign someone during a breaking news event to cite misinformation, track down where it comes from and debunk it,” she said.

There is strength in numbers. 

According to a 2015 study from API, false information outnumbers efforts to combat it on Twitter by a ratio of three to one — and it’s only going to get worse, Elizabeth said. Local newsrooms have people in place to confront viral hoaxes, but in order to do that, social media teams need proper training on how to fact-check and debunk them — skills they’re often not learning in college.

Of course, asking newsrooms to do extra work in a time when cost-cutting and layoffs have become the norm is a longshot. But Elizabeth said publications can make strategic decisions now to effectively fight online misinformation later.

“No matter what you suggest for a newsroom now the answer is always, ‘We don’t have enough people to do that,’” she said. “You really have to look hard at what you’re doing and decide what you don’t need to be doing and what you can do more efficiently. Make it just part of the process. I really think even if you can have just one person assigned to social media full time, it will benefit you.”

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