The challenges of mis- and disinformation in the media have emerged as primary concerns for readers and journalists alike in today’s world, but they’re still widely misunderstood by many people around the world. Organizations and fellowships have emerged in an effort to help media professionals of all levels better understand the phenomenon, its history and mechanisms to combat it.
In May 2018, I traveled with journalists from the U.S. and Germany to Washington, D.C., Charlottesville, Virginia and New York City as part of the Journalism in the Era of Disinformation Fellowship from Cultural Vistas. We visited different newsrooms, including The New York Times and Associated Press (AP), and spoke with media experts about how journalists can use truthful, impactful stories to combat the mis- and disinformation saturating society — and how these diligent efforts have worked in the past.
According to historian and author Dr. Cindy Gueli, who spoke to us during the fellowship at Cultural Vistas’ office in Washington D.C., today’s issues in journalism are nothing new. One of the most effective early examples of political disinformation came from Napoleon III.
“The bulletins he issued directly to the public contained grandiose and often false claims touting his professional successes and personal superiority,” Gueli told IJNet.
Gueli also noted that many people at the time believed the information because it reinforced what they already thought to be true — something that has been proven in many modern studies of the phenomenon.
“Even though many questioned the veracity of [Napoleon’s] claims, they were often willing to overlook it because it aligned with their expectations or advanced their own agendas,” Gueli said.
Journalists looking to fight disinformation today need not look back at Napoleon, but can look to a more recent example for guidance. During the Watergate scandal under President Richard Nixon, journalists used facts, and held power to account, in order to bring out the truth.
“The solid investigative techniques and courageous challenge to authority that made the press so important in revealing the Nixon administration’s multi-layered network of lies and cover-ups remains journalists’ best defense,” Gueli said.
Many national organizations are taking steps to combat today’s information crisis at an organizational level. The AP, for example, places its reporters and editors in a wide range of locations around the world in order to produce original content. This allows them to rely on their own reporting, instead of receiving it from external outlets. They currently operate in 263 locations nationwide, and more than half the world’s population views their content daily, according to their website. The AP also strives to correct mistakes quickly and efficiently, and they publish corrections on the internet and social media in an effort to be transparent.
While upholding these basic tenets of journalism is critical in the fight against disinformation, such efforts rely on the media alone to counter the information crisis. Several organizations don’t think that good journalism is enough, and are teaching audiences how to properly consume news. The NewseumED is one of them, providing lesson plans in media literacy for educators to use in the classroom. Another is Canada’s MediaSmarts, which develops public awareness campaigns, such as “Media Literacy Week,” to promote the importance of media knowledge.
The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) defines media literacy on their website as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” According to NAMLE Executive Director Michelle Ciulla Lipkin — another speaker on our fellowship tour — various different forms of media must be taken into account when evaluating media.
“It’s no longer sufficient to just talk about foundational literacy, [such as] print, writing and consuming with text,” Lipkin said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour. “Certainly that’s the foundation, but we need to move beyond that, and make sure that we’re integrating all media in our literacy conversations.”
Through programs like the Journalism in the Era of Disinformation Fellowship, journalists learn new ways to fight disinformation, while developing a network of colleagues around the world who are dealing with similar issues. ICFJ’s TruthBuzz Fellowship and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford are other programs that allow journalists to discover ways to combat misinformation.