Here’s what journalists can do to fight disinformation

Reach and speed of the internet and social media have multiplied the potential impact of disinformation. At the same time, conventional media outlets have lost their gatekeeping monopoly, putting journalists under increasing pressure. Here are some ideas on how to counter disinformation, gathered from a US-German workshop in Washington, DC and New York City.

Getting the vocabulary right is essential: while “fake news” might be the most widespread term used to describe the phenomenon, it’s equally inadequate and politically charged. When talking about deliberately misleading information being spread, call it disinformation. This allows for more sober analysis, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab’s definitions.

The JED 2018 fellows at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Second, be transparent. Even though reporters can hardly achieve perfect objectivity, revealing your research steps can protect you from accusations of systematic manipulation. To reach maximum transparency, this may even mean to make your complete audio and video footage accessible.

Exposing false news might be the most evident counter-disinformation measure. While this strategy has already been pursued by news outlets in both the US and Germany in recent years (PolitiFact and Tagesschau’s “Faktenfinder” are but two examples), an immense challenge remains: delivering quality journalism to those that are particularly prone to disinformation. Not all of them will read the New York Times regularly, so make sure they can find your pieces on Google and other channels.

More than any generation of journalists before, you will have to work hard to maintain (and restore) trust among the overall population. According to a 2018 study by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, the majority of US adults has lost confidence in the news media. Initiating town hall discussions and school visits, enhancing audience engagement and drawing on user-generated content can help to build bridges, though it’s only a small part of a tedious trust-building process. But not all hope is lost: 69 percent of those questioned say trust can be restored.

Let’s not deceive ourselves. Journalists alone cannot and will not solve the problem of false information deliberately disseminated online. Disinformation is complex, it’s border-crossing. Its originators follow most diverse motives, ranging from political to solely commercial intentions. Evidence suggests that false news spread six times faster than true news on social media. And there’s no way for us to stop this from happening. All we can do as journalists is our job — just more accurate than ever.

The Journalism in the Era of Disinformation Fellowship is a program coordinated by Cultural Vistas and funded by the Transatlantic Program of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany. The application deadline for the 2019 fellowship is January 14, 2019.