The Mothership landed in DC and never left. DC is the Chocolate City. Fewer blacks are in college than other groups. The Willie Lynch letter is the guidebook to slave control. Mental illness is a white disease. $1 spent in the black community leaves in 6 hours. Planned Parenthood strategically targets blacks.
All of these are myths or fact-checks debunked or corrected by TruthBeTold.news, one of the nation’s only fact-checking sites exclusively authored by student journalists.
Initially named HU Insight, TruthBeTold.news, is housed in Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications, Department of Media, Journalism & Film. TBT is one of the 2015-16 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. A majority of the site’s staffing comes from a credited, 3-hour course of the same title. Students enrolled in the class make weekly pitches, same as in any newsroom, and collectively vote on which stories to pursue for fact-correcting or myth debunking.
A Unique Fact-checking site
The site differs from other fact-checking sites in its exclusive staffing of students and its approach of being “devoted specifically to examine issues of importance to the African-American community.” New York Times’ Washington correspondent Ron Nixon, who helped generate the project idea and now serves as an adviser, said, “It is unique in it is not only the only black-focused fact-checking site, but also the only one run by students and at an HBCU … The black population in the U.S. has been the subject of so many distortions, half-truths, myths — politically, culturally and socially — but other fact-checking sites only marginally dealt with these issues. We wanted something that focused on all three areas.”
Black Dollar Myth
One such fact-check is the often cited claim “a dollar spent in the African American community is gone in 6 hours.” This alleged fact yields more than 5.8 million search results on Google, evidence of this falsity’s enduring traction.
This fact-check actually began on a different topic, the belief that blacks do not support black commerce. Brookie Madison, the story’s author, explained, “The fact-check came about as a search to see if African-Americans supported black businesses. The myth that we are led to believe and often hear is that black businesses have poor customer service, which is a reason we spend money elsewhere. But with research, the story changed midway through editing.”
Process Starts in Class
The process at TBT begins at the weekly class meeting helmed by Professor Shirley Carswell and Ron Nixon. (Other members of TBTs faculty advisors include Yanick Lamb, Ingrid Sturgis, Jennifer C. Thomas, Fredric Kendrick, Hazel Trice Edney and Ron Harris.) Students field topical ideas followed by feedback from industry veterans Carswell and Nixon. Students narrow the field of topics and then get to work vigorously researching and fact-checking the myth. In the case of the black dollar myth, Madison explained, “I examined information found by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I read Nielsen’s Consumer Report, and in doing all of this, my editors and I all saw something in common: The statistic about the time a dollar spends in a black community was repeated. So being a fact-checking website, we did just that.”
True fact-checking is a laborious process at times, but is also what separates fact-checking from traditional journalism. In fact-checking, the reporter acts as investigator, responsible for tracking the origin of such claims or so-called facts, then reviews the evidence before passing judgement on said claim. Similar to private investigators, the work can be time-consuming, but with experience and patience, it can yield rich results.
Madison discovered this in the case of the black dollar myth. “A challenge was trying to get in contact with specific people for the answers. For instance, Brooke Stephens. She wrote the book in which the statistic was first used. In her book, she talks about the study the statistic comes from and who did it. It was a goose hunt trying to find the man responsible for the study. I was told he was here in DC, I was told he used to work at Howard. It was just a whole bunch of time spent trying to get firsthand information.”
Students Learn as Myths Take on a Life of Their Own
Some myths, despite the lack of substantiation, can linger on for years as they take on a life of their own. Scientist A.J. Berinsky reminds us that people refuse to relinquish fallacies, even when there is indisputable evidence to the contrary. Madison discovered this to be especially true when researching her black dollar myth. “What surprised me was that this statistic was passed off as true so many times and that it was getting repeated in (2015) as if it was accurate information. It was said on live TV, and it was used in a book.”
These kinds of interactions and revelations are part and parcel of the learning process for the students. Today’s students have experienced their entire lives under a paradigm of pseudo or faux journalism where authors routinely state “facts” or “quotes” attributable to “sources said.” The kind of investigative rigor involved in fact-checking increases the student’s appreciation for getting the facts right before going to press. Department of Media, Journalism & Film Chair Yanick Lamb agreed, “Students learn to take their reporting to a higher level. Fact-checking requires students to zero in on a specific statement and then to dissect the research systematically to prove or disprove it. Students also experience dealing with a team of editors.”
Students are also challenged to use current and emerging technologies throughout the process. “This was very hands-on,” Madison said. “It was almost as if I was just thrown into it. For instance, I’d be given a name and told to interview that person. So, I had to figure out why they were relevant to my story and formulate the right questions to ask. But also, I had to keep in contact and approach them correctly, so they would work with me in case I needed more information. I worked on the story from September to December, so it definitely taught me that some stories take time and don’t have a quick turn-around, like the ones worked on in class.”
Rigorous review and Copy Editing
After several more layers of review and copy-editing from TBTs faculty advisors, the fact-checks are finally cleared to be published. Once published, many of the fact-checks are picked up and referenced by national media. Nixon offered, “This has changed the way in which we teach journalism in so many different ways. First, it is grounded in teaching students how to trace the origins of statements they see in the news. It also combines elements of data journalism, investigative reporting and statistics to help them become better consumers and producers of news. Fundamentally, it reinforces the concept of not taking things at face value, even long-standing beliefs.”
Fact-checking is now a critical part of American journalism. The Reporters’ Lab at Duke University discovered more than 96 active fact checking projects worldwide, with a majority of those being connected to a commercial news organization. In our student-run program, the ultimate goal of the fact-checks is to provide a public service by examining cultural, political and social claims about the African-American community while additionally training tomorrow’s journalists.
Fredric Kendrick is an Assistant Professor in the Department Media, Journalism & Film at Howard University. Kendrick holds a PhD in Mass Communications and Media Studies (Howard University); MS in Management (Troy State University); BA in Broadcast Journalism/Spanish (Troy State University). Prior to entering academe, Kendrick held roles in local TV news as a morning show producer (WBMA), evening news producer (WIAT), sales account executive (WNCF), and network news field producer (Channel One News). At Howard, Kendrick teaches undergraduate courses in Digital Media Literacy, Introduction to Media Production, Multimedia Storytelling, and more. Research interests include credentialing in local TV, and celebrity reputation management.