If a fact-check falls into a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Apologies for the old trope, but it does capture the way fact-checkers sometimes approach their work. Today, we know there’s more fact-checking than ever, with reporters producing deeply researched, high-quality examinations of politicians and government officials’ statements.
And then what?
Typically, reporters (or the social media team) will tweet links to their fact-check. Maybe it also ends up in someone’s newsletter. Too often after publishing their important work, however, journalists step back.
They wait for someone to “hear” it. Wait for conspiracy-mongers to see the light. Wait for Facebookers to stop sharing falsehoods with their social media world.
How’s that working? Unsettling percentages of Americans still believe that President Obama was born in Kenya, that the U.S. government knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, and that climate change is a massive hoax.
In a minute we’ll get to some ideas on how journalists can infiltrate those communities of fact-skeptics. First, let’s be clear: Yes, studies show there are some who will never believe conclusions drawn from irrefutable facts. But there are many people who will learn from the facts, as demonstrated by research conducted last year for the American Press Institute.
And that’s critical in an election year, as FactCheck.org director Eugene Kiely pointed out in a recent interview on public radio. “We can’t as a country decide issues unless we know what the basic facts are,” he said.
This election year features candidates at all levels who may have substantial followings of loyal supporters but a fraught relationship with facts. Donald Trump, of course, currently is the candidate that comes to mind first. Now that he’s become the presumptive GOP nominee, media organizations are being criticized for not suitably informing the public about his repeated acts of misinformation. Heck, the media are even blaming themselves.
In response, fact-checkers have pointed to their many, many fact-checks on the candidate’s whoppers during this primary season. Now’s a good time to ask if those fact-checks are reaching people who should hear them, or if they’ve fallen silently into the forest. And what can journalists do to make sure their work is resonating?
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions on getting those hard-fought facts in front of voters who aren’t political junkies, lifetime NPR members, or avid followers of fact-checking journalists.
1. Fact-check in real time.
It seems like such an obvious progression: Candidate makes an incorrect statement, journalist immediately corrects it. But we know that isn’t happening. Or it’s happening too late, as in CNN’s correction after a recent interview with Trump, who claimed Hillary Clinton started the anti-Obama “birther” movement. And it’s not only live-TV journalists who should combat real-time lying. All reporters can use Twitter to correct misstatements the minute they’re overheard. (To do this effectively, see No. 2.)
2. Get out of your newsroom, virtually.
It may not always be easy, but journalists need to reach into the universe that spawns and feeds misinformation online. Find the places on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other social/digital media where political lies are embraced. Know the hashtags, join the pages, follow the accounts. You likely won’t be welcomed with open arms. But deal with it professionally (see No. 5) and you may find a new audience.
3. Always watch for abusers of your fact-checking work.
The last thing you want is for your carefully researched fact-checks to be used in a non-factual manner to attack — or support — a candidate. Set up alerts and searches to find out how your work is being characterized or corrupted, and respond accordingly. Contact your legal department if necessary.
4. Make it a daily habit to respond to misinformation on Twitter.
What are people saying about the issues you’re covering and debunking? If it’s false, respond with the truth. Yes, it’s another task on a reporter’s growing list of tasks. But this is important (and hey, maybe some of those other tasks aren’t as fruitful). Get help from your social media team. Build a bot. Do something each day to fight the foolishness. Journalism is losing the Twitter misinformation war.
5. Learn to fight back on social media, civilly.
Will there be pushback from partisans and non-believers? Yes, of course. You can still respond professionally, even empathetically. And know when to step out of the conversation. Look for our tips on civility.
What other advice do you have? E-mail me at the American Press Institute or tweet with #FactCheckAPI
Photo credits: (from top) Markfield Park, Flickr Creative Commons; Jane Elizabeth, Ravenna, Italy.