This is the second in a series of articles aimed at helping local news leaders and experts address misinformation and election integrity issues in the lead-up to November. The first, here, covered how news organizations can be transparent with audiences about fighting election-related misinformation.
Seven months before Election Day, the coronavirus has pushed the 2020 campaign into a virtual world. Politicians are recording campaign statements from their homes, and journalists are watching them online. Although they might do interviews by phone or Skype, gone is reporters’ ability to watch politicians interacting with voters or read their body language, as is the give-and-take of in-person press conferences. Asking a question on a Zoom news conference just isn’t the same.
The effect may be more pronounced locally, where close contact is even more common, and there is little precedent or history for the press to learn from about how to proceed. People in the industry and experts who study it are just starting to grapple with the ways this period will change journalism, in some ways permanently.
We’ve assembled thoughts from experts, including from API’s Trusted Elections Network, for guidance. Here are three ideas to consider.
- With more online video, know the ways that it can be manipulated.
As more of the campaign becomes virtual, will that mean more misinformation, too? Social media is where much misinformation spreads, and politicians will use those platforms more than ever now for their messaging.
Manipulated video was already a growing problem. Now, with so much of politicians’ communications being distributed via digital video, it becomes even more important for journalists to understand how people can manipulate or deceptively edit those videos. Knowing manipulators’ methods can help reporters avoid getting duped and also explain the manipulation to the public.
Claire Wardle, the U.S. director for First Draft, a non-profit organization that fights disinformation, notes that such manipulations can come from a politician’s supporters or detractors. “It’s very easy for things to be edited and for meaning to be changed,” she said.
For example, a reporter can ask really tough questions on a television show like a Sunday morning program, she said, but then supporters of the politician can edit the tough questions out to make it sound like the politician “was running rings around the questioner.”
Some experts worry that such manipulations will be more effective as people become more accustomed to seeing politicians distribute information via video, but have little understanding of how to verify its authenticity.
“Both the true information and the false information are coming through the same channel, so it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at the Democracy Program for New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, where he studies the effect of misinformation on elections.
Because video is a particularly potent source of misinformation, First Draft has produced an Essential Guide to Responsible Reporting in an Age of Information Disorder that includes important tips on detecting and reporting on manipulated video.
Another good resource for journalists is The Washington Post’s guide to manipulated video, which differentiates among videos that lack context, are deceptively edited, or maliciously transformed.
- Get local elections officials on speed dial as soon as possible
Journalists’ relationships with elections officials might have been important before – but they are crucial now, with so much uncertainty and confusion about the election process, said the Brennan Center’s Vandewalker. Wardle, too, said one of her main concerns is misinformation surrounding the process.
The pandemic has delayed or upended party primaries in some states. Every state has different rules, which are often complex. That creates a situation ripe for mis- and disinformation, as well as hoaxes.
“If it’s already confusing about where your voting place is or whether you can vote by mail, somebody can put out false information about that and it’s going to be more likely to confuse more people than if the situation were less fluid,” Vandewalker said. “The more chaos there is, the easier it is for bad actors to sow even more chaos.”
In Ohio last month, for example, residents didn’t even know if their March 17 primary was being held until they woke up that morning. (It wasn’t — the state is now having an all-mail primary with an April 28 deadline.) In Wisconsin, a court ruled the day before the primary that in-person voting would go on, and it did, despite the governor’s attempts to delay it due to safety concerns.
The chaos is expected to continue through November as state and local elections officials reassess the safety and feasibility of in-person voting. Vandewalker also noted that the stimulus package passed by Congress last month will send $400 million to states to help them prevent, prepare for and respond to voting problems related to the coronavirus, meaning even more changes are coming.
Vandewalker’s advice to reporters is that they build relationships with local election officials, or strengthen existing ones, as quickly as possible to ensure that they can keep up with changes and clear up misinformation as quickly as possible for readers. His organization is telling the same thing to local officials about reporters, given that they, too, have an interest in disseminating factual information.
Wardle said she is concerned that misinformation about the election process could be aimed at voter suppression. She expects to see hoaxes about the voting machines or ballots being contaminated by the coronavirus, for example, or attempts to seize on fears about standing next to someone in a voting line.
- Fine-tune your hyperbole filter
Politicians in quarantine will struggle to be heard – especially challengers without the advantage of incumbency.
That means they are likely to try to be “as interesting (read: outlandish) as possible,” Liz Mair, a political consultant and founder of Mair Strategies, wrote in a recent Washington Post piece about how the coronavirus will bring about more political melodrama.
“It might already feel like we occupy a land of 1,000 Donald Trumps, but get ready to actually live there,” Mair wrote. “Nice-but-boring politicians can make it in retail politics, but they’ll be a tougher sell in an online-dominated political environment.”
Busy journalists may find themselves prone to taking the bait, and, in doing so, will reward bad behavior, and not really help audiences. Those who want to be more substantive and less focused on rhetoric will avoid stories that simply repeat outrageous statements or take them at face value. They will also provide audiences who might see the statement elsewhere with the context of how a politician might be seeking to break through.
That’s not to say the provocative quote shouldn’t be used — the idea is not to censor politicians, but rather to avoid playing the outrage game. Context is critical for readers. Is this politician normally a bomb-thrower, or is he or she acting out of character? Why are they lashing out on this issue at this moment?
Separately, political campaigns and committees will continue to shovel vast amounts of dirt on their opponents to reporters. As deadline pressure becomes increasingly acute, more sketchy or half-baked information will be pitched as “reliable” and “print worthy,” Mair said in a phone conversation.
Reporters in this environment, she said, will need to move even more quickly and engage even more proactively to get the facts straight and figure out what is real, what is bogus, and what information lives in the grey area in between the two.
As with Vandewalker’s advice about establishing relationships with elections officials, Mair recommends building bridges with people like campaign staffers or consultants who can provide quick sense-checks, which will prevent reporters from having to issue avoidable corrections.
Among these three strategies, a theme emerges.
Journalists who know which local election officials to call are better able to report changes in the rules around voting quickly and accurately. Those who know health officials are best positioned to see when politicians are dispensing bad advice to citizens. Those who know politicians and their past positions are more likely to know when they’re acting out or bending the truth.
The larger theme is that journalists who have a closer connection to their sources and their community will be best positioned to cover this unprecedented story. Those relationships will be critical to offsetting the lack of face-to-face encounters.
If you have thoughts about other ways political journalists can better do their jobs during this tumultuous period, please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, which will reach me and our community managers, Andrew Rockway and John Hernandez.