Information is everywhere. How is the average news consumer supposed to separate fact from fiction?
That’s where the Associated Press steps in.
AP has been a paragon of neutrality and fact-based content for 171 years, but only recently has it gotten attention specifically for the work it’s doing to rid the world of misinformation.
What started as a fact-checking mission to validate information presented by newsmakers – like elected officials’ campaign ads, speeches, and debates – has migrated into an organization-wide effort to verify reported or shared news stories that appear to have bad information, says Eric Carvin, AP’s social media editor.
Carvin is the point person in a partnership that began Dec. 2016 between the AP and Facebook and illustrates some of the efforts AP is undertaking to scrub misinformation from readers’ views.
“Fake news is not strictly new,” Carvin says. “There was a time, not long ago, when we would handle these things by ignoring them. If we wrote about false information, we worried we’d help disseminate it. The rise of the social platform has changed the calculus on this. Now, misinformation can spread like wildfire.”
Any solution to stopping the spread of misinformation, he added, would have to involve social platforms, because that’s where much of the false information is gaining traction.
AP is one of a handful of organizations working to debunk misinformation on Facebook. AP flags content determined to be untrue and writes a rebuttal, which then appears with the original, disputed story when people see it on Facebook. The debunking stories also are distributed to AP’s customers (local and national newspapers, broadcast news stations, and other news organizations) and displayed in the AP Fact Check hub of the AP News site and app.
“We want wide distribution on these items,” Carvin says. “And we feel like our customers are going to want to distribute them to their own audiences.”
Everyone in the newsroom rallies behind this initiative. Journalists and subject matter experts are pulled in to correct the misinformation flagged by Facebook users, just as journalists and subject matter experts are being used to validate the quality of information published elsewhere.
The AP defines fake news as stories that contain misinformation that is designed to mislead people, stories containing some truth and some falsehoods, and stories that contain information that is not false, but may be misleading, according to Carvin. Facebook focuses on the content that is patently untrue, but the AP is not bound by these limitations in its checks.
AP’s ramped-up, fact-checking efforts have gotten good responses from its customers who have responded by adding fact-checking tactics into their own day-to-day efforts. And the public wants news it can trust, even if it doesn’t know the source.
“I think that more of the public is becoming aware of the misinformation crisis and are craving the return to facts,” Carvin said. “People don’t have the same level of trust in the media that they used to. People don’t pay as much attention to the source of information that they used to. There are signs that people are returning to traditional news, but I think the trust question is a continuing challenge for our whole industry in making sure that facts win the day.”
For journalists struggling to manage the spread of misinformation, Carvin shares these six tips:
1. Be clear about what is known, and what isn’t.
The facts are the star of the show — build your stories around them, but also be honest about what isn’t known or knowable.
2. Show your work.
Debunking a piece of misinformation? Be exceedingly clear about how you came to your conclusions. Cite specific, reliable sources of information and credible experts. The more you can say about how you did your reporting, the more effective your fact-checking will be.
3. Listen to your audience.
Come up with ways to let the public come to you with questions about suspicious content online — then provide detailed answers, and thank them for being part of the process.
4. Avoid being insulting.
No matter how preposterous a false story may seem to you, don’t talk down to the people who shared it or believed it. When possible, even acknowledge why someone may have found something believable. Then let facts rule the day.
5. Experiment with format and form.
A traditional text story may not be the best way to engage your audience around the truth. Experiment with video and with different text forms that connect people with information quickly. Varying your approach keeps the audience on its toes, and makes them more likely to pay attention.
6. Always be fact-checking.
Don’t just focus on fake news debunks, or on distinct fact-checking items. Whenever you produce anything that shares information from a newsmaker, fact-check what they say immediately, and include what you find out right there in your reporting. If someone says something particularly egregious, don’t even get to the end of the sentence without bringing in a reality check.
As the AP’s first Washington correspondent, Lawrence Gobright, once said, “My business is to communicate facts. … My dispatches are sent to papers of all manners and politics. I therefore confine myself to what I consider legitimate news and try to be truthful and impartial.”
Thank you, AP. We feel the same way.
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Author Alexa Hoffman is PR Newswire’s director of US distribution products, which reaches thousands of outlets as part of the broadest group of US-based journalists, consumers, bloggers and investors in the industry. Follow her at @PRNlgbt, where she co-curates PR Newswire’s Twitter channel dedicated to LGBT news and culture, and connect with her on LinkedIn.