Circa founding editor: Journalists must debunk misinformation, not just ignore it

March 29, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

A few weeks ago, Circa founding editor David Cohn listened uncomfortably as an acquaintance spoke about Hurricane Sandy and cited the widely circulated image of a scuba diver in the New York subway.

“This person didn’t know that was a fake photo,” Cohn told me. “I had to awkwardly point out in our conversation the photo was fake. But I thought to myself: Somewhere we all failed. It has been months and this person had an image of a scuba diver in a subway and thought it was real.”

Cohn leads the editorial team at Circa, the closely watched startup that built an app, and now an accompanying Web version, to present news with a mobile-first interface and approach. (Disclosure: Cohn is a friend, and years ago we worked together on Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net project.)

As the company says, it’s “News without the fluff, filler, or commentary: Circa’s editors gather top stories and break them down to their essential points — facts, quotes, photos, and more, formatted specifically for the phone.”

Circa stories are constructed by connecting individual “points” that each contain one aspect of a story. Readers can follow stories and receive notifications on their phone updated when new points are added. (The concept is inspired by this Jeff Jarvis post about “assets and paths.”)

Circa’s stories are therefore very brief and focused on events and facts that move the story forward, or offer critical background.

Even with this focus on to-the-point micro-updates, Cohn and his team have found a place for debunking fake images and incorrect claims in their new form of storytelling.

His view on this is that today “part of reporting the news is also reporting on what isn’t real news.

“During the 2nd/3rd presidential debates we did fact checking stories that ran in parallel with the more straight down the line ‘here’s what they said’ story,” Cohn told me by email. “Also during Hurricane Sandy we did have a point or two dedicated to debunking fake photos. We did call out the shark photo as fake.”

They have also added a “point” when misinformation has spread as part of a story.

“During the Newtown shooting we did NOT report that the brother was the shooter, but when it was all cleared up and Adam was identified as the shooter we did have a point explaining that at one point his brother was incorrectly identified,” Cohn said.

Most recently, a Circa story about a meteor that was seen by people living along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. and Canada noted a fake image that had spread on Instagram:

I asked Cohn why he’d chosen to include debunking in a story that wasn’t of the same magnitude as Sandy or Newtown or the presidential debates.

He said he thought back to the person who still believed the subway scuba diver was real and realized they had a chance to prevent the fake from taking hold in people’s minds.

“There is a weird moment now in media where the mistake of one news entity can compound as it is repeated at light speed and I suppose that is the reason why I thought it important to do the photo debunk point (and the previous instances mentioned),” he said. “Because if left unchecked — NOT repeating them simply isn’t enough; they will still persist and spread. If you recognize something as a fake or untrue, not correcting it can sometimes be as bad as repeating it.”

This hasn’t traditionally been the approach in the press. But seeing it incorporated into a new model for news like Circa’s suggests it may be be part of the future.

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