A Moment of Change: Challenges and Opportunities When Covering Hate Speech and Mis/Disinformation

MIT Media Lab
Jun 8, 2020 · 5 min read

By Aashka Dave, Claudia Chen, and Ethan Zuckerman

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Credit: Daniel Schludi, Unsplash

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, news coverage of hate speech and mis/disinformation has skyrocketed. What was once a sleepy beat led by freelancers and activists has become a central topic of coverage for almost every news organization. As the news cycle is transformed by coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and coverage of the 2020 presidential election ramps up, this beat is again at a critical juncture.

To better understand the challenges and changes associated with this inflection point, we conducted 10 in-depth interviews with prominent journalists covering this beat. These interviews underscore critical debates in the field about platform accountability, the news agenda and news organizations’ infrastructure and support systems.

Key Takeaways

PLATFORM ACCOUNTABILITY AND AGENDA SETTING

Takeaway #1: The resource journalists most need is access to the data associated with social media and search platforms. Journalists need better data about what’s visible on platforms and who it is accessible to, as well as stronger tools for data management.

Stronger, more in-depth work on platform accountability is only possible with additional platform visibility and data management infrastructure to support journalistic work and research.

Takeaway #2: Since the bulk of news coverage has shifted to public health concerns, and because news organizations themselves are affected by COVID-19, the pandemic will be as significant a turning point for this beat as the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Further, our understanding of platform accountability will change as COVID-19 takes a stronger grip on the news cycle.

As the pandemic dominates the global news cycle, news organizations will choose to cover the pandemic at the risk of not covering other important beat-related subjects. Within the context of such a change, platform accountability reporting will shift from a techno-criticism framing to a public health framing as the pandemic persists across the world. There is also a greater likelihood that reporters on other beats will stumble onto pandemic-related hate speech and mis/disinformation as more reporters become COVID-19 reporters; this is one example of how the working practices of news organizations are being impacted as the pandemic affects workplace procedures and coverage strategies.

Takeaway #3: Because both the 2020 U.S. presidential election and COVID-19 require careful coverage of mis/disinformation, this beat is likely to become a permanent one.

Coverage of the 2020 U.S. presidential election will become as much a public health beat as it is a political one. This change to the news agenda will increase the need for coverage on this beat, inflame current political tensions, and possibly generate fatigue on the part of newsrooms and journalists. The prevalence and visibility of mis/disinformation in the 2020 election might also cause a shift in the current support and recognition of this beat.

Takeaway #4: As growth on this beat has skyrocketed, concerns about oversaturation are beginning to rival awareness of strategic silence and the risks of amplification.

Journalists clearly recognize the risks of amplification and the need for strategic silence, and have established reporting practices that account for these considerations. However, they also express concerns about unchecked growth in this beat. In an environment where most stories focus on the 2020 election and COVID-19, concerns of oversaturation (related especially to increased news coverage, changes in audience attention and the prevalence of mis/disinformation) have come forward as a possible challenge to work on this beat.

NEWS ORGANIZATION INFRASTRUCTURE AND SUPPORT SYSTEMS

Takeaway #5: Constant exposure to bad actors while covering this beat can lead to negative mental health consequences and safety concerns for reporters and their families.

Taking care of mental health and safety is essential for reporters to be able to perform this work. Oftentimes, safety concerns revolve around those close to journalists, e.g. their family and friends. Aspects of a journalist’s personal identity can affect how comfortable and safe they feel while doing their reporting.

Takeaway #6: There is a deep disparity in resources available between freelance and staff journalists, which can be seen as a reflection of larger problems within the journalistic field.

Freelance journalists have a much harder time consistently accessing resources such as editors, data tools, and security infrastructure- resources that are critical to being able to report on this beat efficiently. Some freelance journalists in this area also feel that their work is being absorbed by staff reporters in larger newsrooms, causing tension and feelings of job insecurity.

Takeaway #7: Although reporters specialize in hate speech and mis/disinformation online, they are still heavily dependent on traditional reporting methods.

While being online and on social media is a key element of the job, traditional reporting methods like attending events, collecting sources, and picking up the phone to talk to others are just as important on this beat. Training on this particular beat is oftentimes informal since the beat changes very quickly and tools are ever-evolving. The most technically adept journalists may not be the best mis/disinformation reporters if they do not also have a strong background in traditional methods.

Takeaway #8: Evaluating success based on broad impact measures rather than a single measurement is critical to doing productive work in this space.

Across the board, thinking about audience and impact were the most important considerations for journalists when deciding what to publish. Focusing on any one metric like SEO performance or clicks/shares is not adequate to measure impact. Reporting on those affected by the bad actors instead of amplifying the bad actors themselves, as well as choosing when to be strategically silent, are critical editorial decisions.

Recommendations

Based on the findings from our interviews, we’ve prepared a set of suggested actions for stakeholders in this space, including technology platforms, non-profits, academics, editors and journalists, as we collectively navigate this critical moment for news coverage and society as a whole. These actions are based on key needs and challenges such as navigating relationships with technology platforms, mitigating potential risks of this beat and furthering support systems for those working in this space. These recommendations are discussed in more detail in the report.

This executive summary was originally published on the Center for Civic Media website. Find the Media Lab project page here.

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