How to fight real fake news

August 2, 2018 11:00

“Fake news” is more than a catch phrase used by the President of the United States. It’s also a phenomenon that journalists must have the skills to detect. 

Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcast and online, veteran journalist and newsroom trainer lead “Critical Thinking to Fight Fake News” this September at Excellence in Journalism 2018 to enable participants to understand what fake news is and ask the right questions to identify it.

Tompkins’ presentation is part of the News Management track. 

Bad actors with intentions to mislead journalists, Tompkins said, are ever present with new ways of presenting fake news.

“Fake news is real. There really is stuff out there that the public has every reason to believe is real but is not. …This stuff makes it into the news, not because of some conspiracy to trick the public, but because it’s so believable,” Tompkins said.

He said misinformation is making a mistake in reporting, admitting it and correcting the record, while disinformation is repeating bad information with the intent to deceive.

Once one reputable source bites the bait, fake news tends to spread rather quickly, he said.

More disinformation has become so believable and sophisticated it’s important to safeguard from unintentionally spreading disinformation, Tompkins said.

To protect a journalist’s and a newsroom’s credibility, learning to detect fake news is an essential skill.

For example, a crowd chanting at a city council meeting may not be what it appears to be, Tompkins said. 

“It’s not whether there was a crowd. The new question is, is the crowd what it seems to be? So, I’m going to show you real cases of real ways that real journalists are being misled. … I’ll show you how the liars lie,” Tompkins said.

“Time is the enemy of accuracy,” Tompkins said, and the reason journalists who are working very quickly to report a story may mistakenly report fake news. 

Attendees “are going to leave this meeting understanding this is not an optional skill,” he said of the ability to detect unreliable information.  

He said there are examples already in the 2018 elections of fake videos in which a candidate’s speech is edited to take it out of context.

Tompkins said some of the questions that journalists must ask when evaluating the validity of information is:
  1. What do I know?
  2. How do I know that? 
  3. What do I need to know? 
  4. Is there any other way to look at this?
There are obstacles ahead in journalism, but Tompkins said, EIJ and similar conferences are great opportunities to learn the crucial skills to meet these challenges.

Despite the environment that journalists work in today, Tompkins said, “I think we are in a sort of resurgence of important, careful, accurate, truthful reporting that really couldn’t be higher stakes. … Every single day we see journalists mine up information that eventually proves to turn out to be true and important. …they are doing it under extreme circumstances where the administration is trying to keep information from becoming public on some of the most incredibly sensitive topics.” 

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