The spread of misinformation can be a black box. Bubbles, filters and algorithms form the boundaries of our online life, and they tend to delineate what we see when we’re browsing. We may try to reflect on what we’re missing and seek news from an atypical source to keep ourselves in check. But even if you’re an avid news consumer – or someone who surfs Wikipedia for fun as I do – is that enough perspective to understand what questions our audience may have?

If journalists aren’t answering the questions their audiences are asking, the potential for misinformation balloons.

We called Aimee Rinehart, deputy director at First Draft and a member of Trusted Elections Network, to explain what happens when there is no new, relevant information on a topic. The lack of new information leaves a space — coined a “data void” by Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd at Data & Society — for misinformation to fill. Bad actors are happy to fill in those blanks. Rinehart offered a primer on where to look for data voids and what to do about them while also touching on other related subjects and how First Draft can help journalists work through all of this.

Data Voids

Thinking about where to find data voids is crucial, but it’s just as important to think about how to frame a story or fact-check. As Rinehart explained, the story isn’t simply about the misinformation itself or the trending hashtag that helped you find it, but what your audience is doing with the misinformation being served to them. What does the spread of misinformation say about their insecurities and vulnerabilities? What can you do to fulfill those needs?

Rinehart said journalists should follow Data & Society’s advice and combat data voids with service journalism — reporting that directly responds to the information needs of your audience (which is experiencing a renaissance, according to the Reynolds Journalism Institute).

The Tipping Point

It might not be clear when it’s time to step in to intervene against a piece of misinformation, however. Naturally, one might wonder if it’s possible to do more harm than good by amplifying misinformation that only exists in a small community. Rinehart brought up the importance of recognizing a tipping point for misinformation.

Identifying the tipping point should not be based on gut instinct. There are enough metrics and analytics about your audience and their engagement with published material to inform this decision in a data-oriented manner.

Write Headlines Like They Are the Only Thing Your Reader Will See

That same informed engagement thinking should apply to your headlines. Think about how readers encounter your stories online — sometimes all they see is a headline. If they choose to not engage and don’t click through to see the material in the rest of the story, are you offering them an accurate perception of what the story holds in the headline?

It doesn’t do any good to go through the process of finding misinformation, deciding to intervene and writing the story only to defuse it all with a headline that neutralizes the most important takeaway of your work. “You’ve got about 40 characters to get it right,” Rinehart said.

Everyone is fighting for the attention of readers who are already likely to infer and impose their perspective on your work. If you find a sentence in the story that flouts the headline, rework the headline to capture that entire idea in the headline. The inverted pyramid should apply to the headline, too.

What Else Can Journalists Do

Managing the challenge of misinformation during a pandemic and with a presidential election on the horizon is a daunting task. When we asked Rinehart about what journalists can do to confront some of these issues, she said journalists should be collaborating.

Rinehart said First Draft wants to serve as a “press pool” to present a more unified, strategic response against misinformation, especially because local newsrooms are a target of misinformation efforts themselves and might not be prepared.

What First Draft Can Do For You

First Draft’s Slack community shares resources, misinformation trends, and updates on its work that can inform the fight against misinformation. The group is the “supportive layer” to complement your efforts, Rinehart said. Beyond its work with API on elections, First Draft touches on coronavirus, reporting responsibly and other topics connected to the evolving informational needs of your audiences. Most importantly, if you don’t know where to begin, their experts can offer individual training to get you started.

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