Advice for journalists on debunking breaking news rumors

by Craig Silverman
Oct 30, 2018 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation

The following is excerpted from the report “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation," written by Craig Silverman, a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. You can download the full report here

I asked the journalists and skeptics I contacted for this paper to offer advice about how journalists can be more effective in debunking misinformation. Below is a summary of their feedback, organized by key themes.

Debunk the idea, not the person.

“Many people are prone to use sarcasm or humor to make fun of beliefs or believers, but I think there is good evidence that this can be counterproductive. I think it’s important to let people know it is okay to be wrong—everyone is wrong sometimes. It is also important to explain how it is that something could seem to be true and actually be false, not just to say, ‘That’s wrong.’” — Tim Farley, computer application security analyst and software developer and author of the blog Skeptical Software Tools

Look before you leap.

“The biggest mistake people are prone to make when covering this kind of [viral story] is that often web-based news orgs will jump on this extremely viral news when it is unclear to everyone involved if the news is in fact true or not. The economic environment incentivizes this behavior. Every time a piece of very hot, viral, sexy news comes across my desk my editor will always say, ‘You’re positive this is real?’ We really try to question that and be very cynical and skeptical about viral stories.” — Caitlin Dewey, reporter for The Washington Post's blog, The Intersect

“In a story that you suspect to be fake, look for the hard facts. Is there any name mentioned? [Are] there pictures from the scene or the people involved? Is there any specific place or time mentioned? If there is, research them. If there isn’t, it’s probably fake. If you find a name in a story that you suspect to be fake, always [try to] contact them.” — Jack Werner, social media editor at Metro Sweden

Remember the cognitive challenges.

“Watch out for the backfire effect. Know your audience and try to frame the information in a way that is not in conflict with their identity or self image (be that political, religious, cultural, etc).” — Tim Farley

“Sadly, I suspect an appeal to emotional triggers is more effective than a cold, rational debunk. We have evolved strongly emotional mental systems for discerning truth and these are more easily swayed by powerful personal testimony than by charts, graphs, outlines, timelines or any of the more reason-based tools we use when trying to appeal to a reader’s mind.” — Blake Smith, host of the podcast MonsterTalk, a product of the Skeptics Society

Be realistic about impact.

“Hoaxes and myths cannot be entirely debunked; don’t try for full triumph over any single falsehood or you will be bogged down in repetitive and recursive niche debunkery. Publish a single go-to page or fact sheet, thoroughly cited; then link to it, move on. Acknowledge that sometimes a persistent myth is just part of the texture of a culture.” — Paulo Ordoverza, creator of the @PicPedant Twitter account that calls out fake images

Think about presentation and promotion.

“[Journalists need to] consider their own viral tactics. You gotta fight fire with fire here.” — Alexis Madrigal, Silicon Valley bureau chief and executive producer at Fusion

“Tell the story in a transparent and extensive fashion, always explaining how you found the story, why you suspect it’s not true, and what methods you used to find the facts. Try to make it as reader-friendly as possible and capture the reader’s interest.” — Jack Werner

Be aware and make use of skeptic resources.

“Always seek out skeptical commentary from published, experienced, knowledgeable skeptics. Recognize that there is a significant body of skeptical literature available for almost any ‘unexplained’ or pseudoscientific topic, you just have to look for it. The best sources are the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the Skeptics Society.” — Benjamin Radforddeputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine

Craig Silverman is the founder of, a real-time rumor tracker, and a leading expert on media errors, accuracy and verification. Craig is the founder and editor of Regret the Error, a blog about media accuracy and the discipline of verification. It is part of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, where he serves as adjunct faculty. Craig edited the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Center, and helped launch OpenFile, a Canadian local news startup. 

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via hertzen