What is a Critical Conversation? | Printable discussion guide

Misinformation often pops up unexpectedly. Sometimes that’s the whole point — it’s designed to quickly hijack people’s minds. In election season, partisans can spread falsehoods about candidates, their positions on the issues or things they supposedly said. Sometimes real quotes are taken out of context, then spread on social media.

But even though misinformation arises without warning, there are ways to plan for how you’re going to handle it.

Who’s in this conversation?

This is likely a topic for wide inclusion — politics reporters and editors, the social media team, production and standards editors and anyone else who touches politics stories. Photo and video editors should be involved for discussions of visual misinformation.

The agenda

1. How can we prepare for the kinds of misinformation that are most likely to circulate in our community?

During election season, people can spread falsehoods about ballots, polling places and even dates or times for voting, in an attempt to influence voter behavior or just to create chaos. Sometimes people share it innocently, thinking they are being helpful.

Not every piece of misinformation needs to be debunked. You don’t want to amplify something if its reach or impact isn’t that great. But sometimes it cannot be ignored, especially if it is affecting behaviors like voting. Misinformation experts like Claire Wardle describe a “tipping point” at which a falsehood like a conspiracy theory can no longer be ignored. This is a useful concept for newsrooms to understand when deciding whether to write about it.

Consider these actions:
  • Designate someone, perhaps in the social media team, to monitor social media for new falsehoods that pop up in your community, then keep them in a place (not for publication) where reporters and editors can see them.
    • Talk about how you want to respond to them as they pop up. Is it a story now? A situation worth monitoring as a potential story later? Or  something you want to avoid writing about until avoiding it becomes impossible?
    • Socialize the idea of a misinformation “tipping point” around the newsroom so that when someone says “we’ve reached the tipping point on this,” people understand what it means.

2. How can we prepare for the kinds of misinformation that target certain communities within our coverage area?

Every community has its own information ecosystem, and that includes misinformation. For example, misinformation and elections experts have been warning for years about the ways in which communities of color and immigrants are particular targets for voting disinformation. In 2022, the Washington Post reported that group chats among immigrant communities were “blowing up with political rumors and lies.” Experts say 2024 could be worse, with the Associated Press reporting that misinformation campaigns are becoming more sophisticated and tailored to specific communities of color.

Consider these actions:
  • Designate someone to get a read on what kind of misinformation is circulating — or may circulate — in communities that may be the target of voting misinformation.
    • Consider ways your news organization can reach these communities with understandable, actionable content. This may be especially urgent if people are getting false information about voting procedures or dates, candidates or ballots.
  • Is this a community within our coverage area where we’d like to make inroads and grow our audience? How can we make sure this information reaches them?

3. How can we best position ourselves to recognize and respond to faked or artificially generated content?

Days before the New Hampshire primary election in January, some voters in the state received a robocall from a voice that sounded like President Joe Biden discouraging people from voting.

It wasn’t Biden, of course, but rather an artificially generated voicemail spoofing the president in a voter suppression effort. Axios used the New Hampshire episode as an example of what it said would be “the deepfake election.”

Not every newsroom will have an expert on staff or a visual investigations team to discern fake content from real. In cases like the New Hampshire voicemail, it may be particularly difficult because, as experts told NBC recently, it is getting easier to create believable audio scams, and harder to detect them.

Journalists should also be aware that while deepfakes have attracted a lot of attention, falsehoods are often made and circulated without them. Video can be manipulated, or captions can be superimposed on existing video to make it look like someone said something they didn’t. Real video, where someone misspoke and then later corrected themself, can be selectively edited — without the correction. Fake screenshots are a common problem.

Consider these actions:
  • If you have the resources, designate a person or team to familiarize themselves with basic tools, such as this one from Axios, that can help you spot an AI-generated image. The Better Business Bureau has one as well.
  • If you don’t have a person who has or can get this training, have your staff line up experts who would be willing to be on hand for a consultation, on short notice if needed.
  • Your newsroom should also know how to describe this content and make distinctions between AI-generated video, deepfakes or “cheap fakes” and manipulated content, so they can write about it with precision. Numerous glossaries of misinformation terms like this one from The Journalist’s Resource, can be found online.

4. How are we going to handle a situation where people we interview in our community believe something that is patently false?

One of your reporters is interviewing people in a grocery store parking lot to get views and insights into voter sentiment ahead of the election. But some of them hold views that are fueled by misinformation or outright lies. It is a tough situation. If you don’t quote them, you’re not reflecting an actual view of a community member. But you also don’t want to amplify or in any way legitimize views that are false.

One answer is the “unpack later” approach — don’t run the questionable quote or view now but come back to it later in a story with full context. Often the best antidote to bad information is good information. But a reporter on deadline with a specified word count may not have time or space to quote a person who believes a conspiracy theory, for example, and then explain why it’s wrong.

It’s worthwhile to take a moment to probe why someone might believe something that isn’t true — where they heard it or what makes them believe it. It may well expose an information gap in the community that your news organization can fill. Journalism that explains the motives of misinformers — which is often done for their own political or financial gain — can be one way to help people understand how they’re being used.

Consider these actions:
  • Arm reporters with the facts about the most commonly spread falsehoods so they are prepared when they hear them.
  • Make clear to reporters and editors that you don’t want to uncritically quote people who say things known to be false.
    • But also give those reporters the room and time to report out why these people believe the falsehoods. There may be a deeper story to tell.

5. What about when politicians lie?

Politicians who spread falsehoods need to be held to account. Sometimes it is hard to avoid because they will use false or misleading information to counter an assertion from their opponents.

The best way to handle this is to be prepared for it with an inventory of their most common falsehoods. Make sure the reporters who cover these people have an arsenal of facts so that they can challenge them on the spot, if necessary. Another tool that is handy to have on hand is a collection of boilerplate sentences that refute the most common falsehoods they spread.

For example, say a local politician who is a supporter of Donald Trump makes a claim about Democrats rigging the 2020 election. You’ll need to have boilerplate language on hand to quickly insert in the story if you quote this person. An example might be:

“There is no evidence that the 2020 election was rigged or that there was widespread election fraud. After the election, President Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, said his department had uncovered no fraud on a level that would have caused a different outcome of the election.”

Your own language will apply to local news and local issues, by design. Each beat reporter can devise this language for common misinformation they encounter.

Consider these actions:
  • Politicians on both the local and national levels tend to repeat talking points. Identify the misleading ones for the politicians you cover.
  • Make sure the reporters who cover these people have an arsenal of facts so that they can challenge them on the spot, if necessary.
  • Devise prewritten text that can be plugged into these stories.

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