February 10, 2015

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.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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