THE BLOG

Toward Trustworthy News: 'Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content'

02/11/2015 02:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

We're talking about an authoritative report regarding "how news websites spread (and debunk) online rumors, unverified claims, and misinformation." That's not, in itself, news, but it's real valuable in that this report brings together and surfaces a lot of untrustworthy and very common practices.

factcheck

My perspective, as usual, is thatI'm a news consumer, never told anyone how to fix the news, I just want news I can trust. I'm not a news professional, haven't "been there," I'm an outsider, and continue to respect the boundaries. That's why I rely on professional work like this.

I just don't do the report or its methodology justice, so please check it out.

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. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.

Here are the highlights:

• Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well. The story's point of origin, once traced back through the chain of links, is often something posted on social media or a thinly sourced claim from a person or entity.

• Among other problems, this lack of verification makes journalists easy marks for hoaxsters and others who seek to gain credibility and traffic by getting the press to cite their claims and content.

• News organizations are inconsistent at best at following up on the rumors and claims they offer initial coverage. This is likely connected to the fact that they pass them on without adding reporting or value. With such little effort put into the initial rewrite of a rumor, there is little thought or incentive to follow up. The potential for traffic is also greatest when a claim or rumor is new. So journalists jump fast, and frequently, to capture traffic. Then they move on.

• News organizations reporting rumors and unverified claims often do so in ways that bias the reader toward thinking the claim is true. The data collected using the Emergent database revealed that many news organizations pair an article about a rumor or unverified claim with a headline that declares it to be true. This is a fundamentally dishonest practice.

• News organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations ("reportedly," "claims," etc.) to convey that information they are passing on is unverified. They frequently use headlines that express the unverified claim as a question ("Did a woman have a third breast added?"). However, research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences. These approaches lack consistency and journalists rarely use terms and disclosures that clearly convey which elements are unverified and why they are choosing to cover them.

The report supports all this real solidly.

The Trust Project suggests we focus on the signals of trustworthy reporting. I'd suggest a few such signals, wherein an article would assert the following affirmatively or otherwise.

1. Are all claims/facts in the article verified by independent sources?

2. Are article headlines clickbait in the sense that they are sensationalized and inaccurate reflections of the stories?

3. Does the news org publish first, then relies on crowdsourced fact checking? (I formerly believed in that, then realized that considerable harm might be done prior to a correction.)

4. Does an article cite a party that hadn't responded to requests for comment, if sufficient time is provided for comment. (I've seen cases where reporters requested comment very close to deadline, or very early morning, etc)

The news business is hard and getting harder, even if the intent isn't trustworthy. I don't want to be a hard case, just want news I can trust, and the Silverman report helps point the way.