There was a time when being a journalist meant pursuing a story by reporting the available information from as many sources as possible, writing the piece, and getting it published in print and online.
How quaint that now seems. Today’s media environment requires reporters and editors to be detectives of misinformation, and then be prepared to debunk falsehoods without amplifying them. The proliferation of user-generated content online means journalists must adhere to their craft’s ethics and standards while competing with people who have none. Journalists must employ techniques to maintain the eroding trust of readers and viewers even as partisans seek to delegitimize the profession. They must find new ways to listen to increasingly polarized communities and show that they are hearing different perspectives – but without taking sides or appearing to do so.
The new ethics governing journalists’ work have been evolving over the past couple of decades. Media professionals and consumers alike are aware of how the digital information age has gradually eroded the traditional media’s role as gatekeepers of information, not to mention its advertising revenue. The explosion of social media over the past 10 years then added a new dimension – an internet driven by its users, who also compete for attention. More recently, the exploitation of these technologies by nefarious actors, domestic and foreign, has thrown disinformation and media manipulation into the mix.
Now, add in attacks from politicians, led by President Donald Trump, that the media is the “enemy of the people” delivering “fake news,” and the picture is complete. In today’s information ecosystem, journalists who are just trying to inform the public as truthfully as they can are now being sidelined, distrusted, manipulated and maligned all at the same time.
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These phenomena – misinformation, polarization and media attacks – all reinforce one another. People who are persuaded that traditional media are not delivering the truth may turn to more partisan alternatives for news and information, as they seek out and stick with sources that fit and validate their own beliefs. An information tribalism takes hold, worsening polarization. The cycle repeats.
On the national level, an election in 2020 and the effort to impeach the president have further quickened and intensified the news cycle. Many journalists describe being under relentless pressure in breaking news situations, which is when they are most vulnerable to manipulation and misfires. The notion of slowing down and carefully deliberating word choices is often unrealistic, however. The tension between getting a story out on deadline and getting it right is not new, but that tension, experts and practitioners say, is only getting worse.
On the local level, newsroom cutbacks have not only eroded coverage of important issues, but also interfered with the ability of journalists to take time to develop the kind of sophisticated framing needed to avoid feeding into polarization.
With generous support from the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the American Press Institute has been exploring ways journalists can navigate this environment.
There are a variety of new strategies being developed to help journalists convey to readers what’s really happening in their communities and how their institutions of government, business and education are performing. There is heightened awareness of how misinformation spreads. There is also new research on how people process information.
This report explores and explains some of those strategies and is designed to help people better understand and navigate the crosscurrents of polarization and misinformation buffeting the industry. The insights here are derived from a review of recent thinking on the subject, including scholarly research and interviews with experts and journalists in the field. In addition, API held a two-day summit in the summer of 2019 that brought journalists together with people who study the information environment. We included experts in the ways manipulators try to influence mainstream reporters and social psychologists who understand how people process information. We talked to journalists who are trying out new strategies to deal with divided audiences, and fact-checkers who are doing their part to police the falsehoods and help clean up the internet landscape.
There is also a growing body of literature on the subject from both academia and non-profit organizations studying how to contend with misinformation and polarization. Some of the strategies included here are well known but worth recounting. Others are newly evolving. And some will seem counterintuitive for journalists. The current era requires that they at least be given consideration.
As noted above, the issues involved are complex and intertwined, but they are treated in four sections in this report for clarity:
- In our first section we explain how journalists can respond to and operate in an information ecosystem contaminated with misinformation, fakes and hoaxes, and how they can avoid being manipulated.
- In the second, we suggest how and when to cover false information without amplifying it.
- In the third section, we consider how journalists under attack might respond to politicians like Trump who are seeking to erode trust.
- In the fourth, we offer ways that journalists contending with polarized audiences can avoid widening the divide – and maybe even narrow it.