Experts share how journalists can stay ahead of disinformation

Journalists are amid a perfect storm of disinformation, threats to their work, and lagging resources to support local news outlets. Add in the essential role of journalism to defend against the erosion of our democracy, and practitioners face a critical moment to find solutions to the disinformation crisis.

Psychological scientists and journalists covering the rampant spread and impacts of disinformation shared tips and tools for journalists ahead of the midterm elections during a panel discussion hosted by the National Press Club Journalism Institute on Sept. 23. Here are some highlights: 

What journalists can do in their work

  • Start from the perspective that any person, including yourself, is susceptible to believing disinformation. Ask yourself what about the topic at hand people are attracted to, as a way to make sure that your accurate journalism resonates with people. 
  • Regularly monitor a suite of platforms, outlets, and researcher accounts for your reporting. 
  • Base reporting off of data or information you’ve seen firsthand, in its original format. 
  • Be aware of reporting information that is emotionally powerful, whether it could make someone very happy or very angry. That type of information is more likely to need a nuanced approach. 
  • Be explicit about what narratives are baseless, misleading, or outright false but being shared by authoritative sources in public spaces.
  • Cue readers early in a story or project that multiple voices are represented within the entirety of the article. Many people who don’t make it very far in a story will disregard what they’ve read if they don’t see themselves in the story.
  • Debunk disinformation: First, introduce the accurate information. Then, address the myth and correct it, addressing the various aspects of the myth that a reader may have already mentally committed to. Introduce and refute all the causal explanations that give a myth plausibility. 
  • Choose your battles: You can’t debunk every piece of disinformation that exists. Select  disinformation that has gained or has the potential to gain widespread appeal among your audiences.
  • Pre-bunk disinformation when you can: Anticipate the misinformation or conspiracies that might spread from a news event, then get the facts out before lies have a chance to go viral. Doing so can help immunize people to the disinformation that they’re going to see from various sources and gives them a chance to understand why it’s false. 
  • When doing a fact-check piece, gain trust with your audience by including authorities from different parties to help debunk falsities. Think about the role of identity in beliefs and bake that in by including the parties that are going to be more trustworthy to those you are trying to educate.
  • Be up front with the audience about the challenges that go into reporting and the critical process reporters go through. Share how you went about your reporting and acknowledge doubts about the information in play.
  • Develop a general mindset and approach that encourages people to be skeptical and search for accurate understanding. Showing people how they’re being manipulated by the purveyors of disinformation seems to be a strategy that works. 
  • Know that you can’t reach everyone, but you can reach more than you may assume. There are people who, given the chance, would be open to learning more about how to parse through different sources of information. 
  • Be present in your communities: If audiences don’t see journalists as people living and working in their communities, it can degrade trust. 
  • Be wary of moving too fast and trying to beat the crowd. 
  • Report the denominator: Frame norms clearly and effectively, especially in headlines. It may be appealing to highlight the unusual, but doing so can heighten emotions and fear. Context is key.

Disinformation, Midterms, and the Mind: How psychological science can help journalists combat election misinformation was organized by the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the American Psychological Association, and PEN America. Panelists included: 

  • Dolores Albarracín, Alexandra Heyman Nash University professor; Director, Social Action Lab; Director, Science of Science Communication Division, Annenberg Public Policy Center
  • Tiffany Hsu, reporter on the technology team covering misinformation and disinformation, New York Times
  • Jay Van Bavel, Director, Social Identity & Morality Lab and Associate professor of psychology and neural science, New York University
  • Anya van Wagtendonk, misinformation reporter, Grid
  • Moderator: Summer Lopez, chief program officer, free expression, PEN America

Read next: What journalists need to know about the psychology behind disinformation.

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