In an age that craves immediacy and information, processes of verification are more important than ever, but not necessarily the norm. A new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism produced by Craig Silverman details the ways news outlets spread — and debunk — rumors and misinformation.
He found that many news outlets take few steps to verify the viral information that they share, often starting a chain of linking to and citing others who have already reported the rumor.
“News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors,” Silverman wrote. “Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.”
Despite this discouraging news, Silverman goes suggests practical ways outlets can effectively debunk rumors while still having fun and maintaining traffic.
Silverman is a journalist-enterpreneur, author and media critic based in Montreal, Canada. He is currently a fellow at the Tow Center at Columbia University and recently produced the report, “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation” (PDF). EducationShift talked with Silverman about the report and what educators should take away from it.
What can educators do to better prepare students to wrestle with rumors in the media?
Craig Silverman: I think that educators can start by communicating that rumors are a naturally occurring phenomenon, and they can have a significant role when it comes to reporting breaking news. I don’t think educators should be spending a huge amount of time on the psychology of rumors or going into deep detail, but instead just talk about the fact that rumors naturally occur in situations of uncertainty and anxiety. For example, when there’s a shooting or natural disaster breaking, there’s so much information out there. I think it helps to give an element of context when people teach and talk about breaking news, speed and accuracy. The other piece of teaching basic knowledge about rumors is that is gives journalists tools for actually figuring out which ones are true, which ones are worth looking into and which ones are false. In general, I think one of the biggest lessons from this report is that there are a lot of journalists out there who aren’t doing the most basic work to figure out the source of a piece of information. So, I’d really encourage educators reinforce the importance of sourcing information and evaluating information based on the source. So many of the rumors that turn out to be false can be predicted based on where the information is coming from.
A useful way for educators to think about teaching verification is rather than thinking about fear, make it more about doing an investigation and solving mysteries. And it might sound a little bit silly, but the reality is that if you get students to approach verification like this, it is far more motivating than just verifying “because I told you so.” Verification is a means to find things that other people don’t have. And, in that sense, getting people motivated and excited about actually learning this stuff becomes a lot easier. The other piece is being exercise driven — find a photo and ask students to find verification information on it. Do little case studies and have students apply knowledge instead of just talk about it. I think that’s what educators do anyway, but the more practical piece of actually digging and finding stuff is more effective because the best way to drum up excitement about verification is when someone digs for an answer and finds it. If you can help them have those moments of realization, then it becomes a habit throughout the rest of their career.
How should educators balance this concept with the weight of 24-hour news that many students will eventually work under?
Silverman: I think there’s no question that a lot of students, through having an internship or reading up on the industry, are going to believe that they’re most valuable if they can turn out lots of content that gets shares and traffic. And in the vast majority of cases, that’s true. However, what I think is really important to note is that if you can be the person who goes into a scenario and actually finds information that supports or refutes something or if you’re the person who is able to very quickly surface something that other people don’t have, then you have more value. On one level, educators should emphasize that verification isn’t a huge, time-consuming task and that a lot of people aren’t doing it, so if students have the basics and do it consistently, they’re going to stand out. The second piece of it is that we are starting to see people enact a more serious verification approach as a counter-strategy. Certainly there are large websites that are going to grab anything and put it up as fast as they can, but there are other sites that see that happening and realize that they can’t play that game. They try to figure out what’s really going on and add value to it. So, I think students should be trained to produce things quickly, they should be good at finding and discovering things online that have news value, but they also need to understand that within a very small amount of time, they could use a very simple process to find out things that other people will not.
What systems of verification should students be proficient in?
Silverman: The trick is that, at the core, it’s pretty simple stuff. A lot of the basics that are already taught and talked about still apply—seek out sources and find multiple sources. What happens online, however, is that people are jumping to report more quickly, and in some cases, that’s what they’re being told to do at the organizations they work for. One of the things that I think needs to be more emphasized is that verification isn’t necessarily a really long and arduous process. There are definitely cases where that is the reality, but a lot of times, it just requires five or six minutes to evaluate the source and piece of information—where it came from, who first said it, who first shared it. At the same time that they’re evaluating the content, they should be asking if other people are reporting the same thing. Just those extra few minutes of evaluating the source and the content will often reveal the most important things.
People can get obsessed with tools of verification, but it’s still really good to be old-school—you find the source, you talk to them. A lot of this is really basic, but my experience and what I’ve heard from educators is that there typically aren’t concrete verification skills taught in a lot of journalism schools. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of accuracy and verifying things, but giving people practical steps on a really basic level is not necessarily done as often. The other thing is that there are some basic tools out there that journalists should be familiar with, one of them being reverse image search. Everyone who is in a reporting class should know how to do a reverse image search because it can be helpful in figuring out where an image is from online, who else has recorded it and who else has used it. I think students should have a basic awareness that videos and photos often contain metadata. And if you use EXIF Viewer, you can often extract some information about when a photo was taken, where a photo was taken or what kind of camera was used. I also think that better search techniques can be taught in classrooms. Verification, at its core, is really just a form of reporting — you’re trying to figure out if something is true or not. Students should also know how to do a quality search on Google and be aware of some of the people searches that are out there like Spokeo.
How can journalists share unverified information ethically?
Silverman: One of the things that is clear from the research is that there are a variety of hedging words and attribution formulations that journalists use to try and signal to the audience that something is unverified. What we found is that there’s not a lot of consistency from one news organization to the next. And there isn’t even a lot of consistency within one organization. So students should be aware that, regardless of what hedging words you use, you’re giving information exposure.
But if you decide that you need to go ahead with it, I think it’s really important for them to think about things from the news consumer’s perspective. How will this person know that this is unverified? How can you best communicate that to them? Because I think a lot of times people try to write to just make it interesting, but when you’re dealing with unverified information, it’s important to make it clear what you do know and what you don’t know. There are too many examples of people writing things up in a way that leads people, by default, to think it is true. It’s important for educators to teach students about hedging words and the different approaches that are out there. The other thing that is important to be taught is that it’s really misleading to use a question in headlines. If you write a headline that puts the claim as a question, most people process that as true when they read it. So we should be steering people away from it and away from overly provocative declarative headlines in which the writer thinks they can walk it back in the body text. That doesn’t work. This is applies broadly, but it’s important to remember how effective and influential headlines are. They frame how all of the subsequent information is processed. If you’re writing just to get clicks, then there’s a chance that you’ll be spreading false information around. This is one of those research questions that I wish I had the answer to. I wish I could give educators the three hedging words that should be used and present the ones that shouldn’t be, but the truth is we don’t know. We know headline questions are bad, but we don’t know which headlines are read and understood as unverified and which ones are processed as true. So, unfortunately, there’s no real data on that yet.
How has technology influenced the verification process? For good or for bad?
Silverman: There’s no question that, to a certain extent, technology can be a double-edged sword. For example, Twitter is a major platform for helping to knock down false information, but also propagating it. I would say, by and large, we have better tools to do the work faster than ever before. With so much on the internet and effective tools for searching, it’s actually pretty incredible how easy it has become to track stuff down. Reverse image search, metadata readers and other programs can be really, really useful. At the same time, Photoshop is an extremely powerful program, and there are tools out there like Let Me Tweet That For You which will create a fake tweet for you in seconds. So, while there’s an arms race for tools that can help with verification, there’s also so much out there that makes it easy to manipulate information and easy to propagate misinformation. The important thing for journalists to be aware of is that the tools themselves are really helpful and they can speed up some processes. But if you expect the tools to find the answer every time, you’re going to be disappointed. You have to mix using tools with asking a question and evaluating the evidence. It’s always the two working together; you can’t just use the tools. We don’t have a truth machine, yet.
Into the future, how do you see journalism education having to change to accommodate new advances in the rate that information can be shared?
The challenge for journalism education is that there is an incredible acquisition of knowledge happening today. Stuff that gets taught in first-year journalism may be obsolete by the time they’re actually graduating. And so, the challenge is figuring out which things are really the fundamentals, and then how to teach students to be curious and teach themselves throughout the rest of their career. And that definitely relates to verification in the sense that there will always be new tools, there will always be new approaches and there will always be new rumors and hoaxes, but the fundamentals are determining, finding and speaking to the original source. And that will never go out of style. The other piece is helping people understand that there will always be new search tools, technology and software, and if you’re not committed to continuing to learn, then you are going to fall behind. You’ll end up getting beat by people, and you’re going to make mistakes.
Craig Silverman is currently working with the European Journalism Center on curriculum-based approaches to verification. He would love to hear from educators about their approaches, tips or suggestions to teaching this important practice.
Meagan Doll is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying journalism. She is an intern for the EducationShift section at PBS MediaShift.