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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Cadence Bambenek

Recap: Truth, Trust and the Future of Journalism

Truth, Trust and the Future of Journalism brought together more than 200 journalists, scholars, advocates and community members to discuss how we have gotten to historically low levels of trust in news media and how we can ensure a free, courageous and responsible press in times of extreme partisanship.

The Center for Journalism Ethics’ annual conference focused on critical issues facing journalism today: fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation, public mistrust and possible solutions in what some are calling a “post-truth” era.

Keynote conversation with Margaret Sullivan

The Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan served as the keynote speaker, kicking off the conference with a Q & A with CJE director Katy Culver. Discussion spanned everything from the news balance of the last election cycle, to the value of the term “fake news,” to discussion of Sullivan’s previous role as Public Editor at The New York Times.

“The words ‘fake news’ are almost useless now because they have come to be used for anything that anyone doesn’t like … It’s actually a way of undermining the truth because if anything you don’t like, factual or not, can be called fake, how does the truth survive that?” – Margaret Sullivan

Photo by Melissa Behling

The Responsibility & Challenge of Truth: Fact, Fiction and News

Photo by Melissa Behling

Ken Vogel of Politico addressed the concern over major news organizations’ reliance on confidential sources. Vogel noted the importance of those relationships in reporting, but also said he thinks the best journalism happens when journalists are digging up information themselves, rather than working their insider sources.

In response to comments that much of the coverage surrounding Donald Trump is negative, UW journalism professor Lucas Graves Graves said reality is not always balanced, pointing to the industry emphasis on fact checking as an example that fair isn’t always balanced.

“It sort of suggests that there was a golden age when politicians didn’t lie as much and when people read the paper really closely and they were scanning for all the facts and making careful decisions. And we know that’s not true.” – Lucas Graves on why he is uncomfortable with the suggestion that we are in a  “post-truth” era

Blind Beliefs? Conspiracies, Hoaxes and Disinformation

Photo by Melissa Behling

Joanne Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, also criticized the notion that we’re living in a post-truth era. She explained that human reasoning is not developed to identify the truth but rather to ensure our survival. She researchers what she calls a phenomena of losing side psychology: When a highly knowledgeable individual’s political party loses an election, she explained, they may become more distrustful of media and political institutions and become predisposed to believe conspiracy theories in an attempt to rationalize the loss.

How to build back public trust was a point of debate between Deborah Blum, a professor in MIT’s science writing program, and Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative talk show host.

In recent years, Blum noted how science journalism has shifted to reporting the narrative supported by overwhelming scientific evidence, rather than giving equal balance to two sides, citing the Los Angels Times‘ decision to eliminate Op Eds rejecting climate change as one example.

But Sykes warned that it’s when there isn’t space for these discussions in mainstream media that people turn to alternative outlets like the Breitbart News Network where they can find content that validates their worldviews, leading to further fragmentation and mistrust.

“You can do the best reporting in the world, but unless you can find a way to restore that credibility, break through that chrysalis somehow, it won’t even register.“- Charlie Sykes on the importance of credibility in a highly partisan climate

Where Do We Go from Here? Solutions in an Allegedly Post-Truth Era

Photo by Melissa Behling

Michelle Ye Hee Lee of The Washington Post’s Fact Checker said she is a proponent of bringing fact checks to the audience in the spaces they’re already in. Lee said presenting fact-checks via Snapchat has been a successful tactic to reach younger audiences. She added that the Post’s fact-checking newsletter is the organization’s fastest growing newsletter as well, growing organically between reader shares. Lee’s takeaway? Be creative and reach people where they are – don’t expect them to find you.

At Stanford University, Dawn Garcia said Knight fellows are innovating solutions to major issues in journalism, addressing everything from challenges with data journalism, emerging technology, audience engagement and diversity, news ecosystems and business models.
Current journalism business models were of concern to Marty Kaiser, Senior Fellow of the Democracy Fellow, as well. But he said he sees hope in the changes he sees newsrooms making in response to financial pressures.


NPR’s experiment with live fact-checking

NPRIt took a team of about 30 NPR reporters and editors to annotate live transcripts of the 2016 presidential debates, according to Amita Kelly, a reporter on NPR’s politics team

The roster included journalists from politics, business and international security, with editors simultaneously working to clean up the transcript itself as well as the fact checks and analysis.

“We use the term fact check a little bit broadly,” Kelly explained. “Some were straight: is this true or false? But a lot of it is just the analysis that our reporters can provide, saying: ‘Actually, there’s more to the story.'”

NPR’s fact check featured an unfolding live transcript of the debate, with various claims underlined and linked to fact checks from NPR staff. The annotated transcript of the first debate drew more than 2 million views within 48 hours.

An example of a fact check from NPR during the first debate.

An example of a fact check from NPR during the first debate.

Because many of the claims the candidates made during the debate had already surfaced at some point in the campaign, the NPR team was able to rely on previous reporting to quickly verify information, according to NPR digital team member David Eads.

“The reporters are adding context and checking whether or not the statements are true, but there are also linking to stuff all around the media,” Eads said. “These became really great ways of catching up quickly on a lot of different issues. If we hadn’t had that kind of foundation of that reporting before, then I don’t think it would be quite as successful.”

But there are limits to this style of instant fact-checking, said Lucas Graves, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin and author of “Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism.”

“Usually these claims are much more complicated to investigate than it seems at first,” Graves said. “If you were to try to decide from scratch whether some budget claim was true or false, and get that up in five minutes, you’re probably going to make a mistake.”

checking facts: a conversation

While the speed of the instant fact check may not always be possible, Graves said NPR’s fact-checking endeavor illustrates a conversational style that is trending in today’s journalism.


FiveThirtyEight live-blogged the first presidential debate.

Pointing to FiveThirtyEight’s election team, which takes a Slack conversation between reporters or experts on a designated topic, edits it for clarity and then posts it directly to the web, Eads said news consumers are looking for more of a dialogue than traditional journalism has offered.

“It seems that people want to hear a lot of voices, sort of in dialogue, and not this omniscient detached narrator that can provide journalism from the the 50s,” Eads said.

Kelly described the experience NPR created with the debate fact checks with contributions from reporters across beats as like watching the debate “with all of your smart NPR friends sitting next to you.”

“When Clinton, something comes up about her emails or a tax plan or a tax credit, I want someone to poke me and say ‘Hey! Actually, she’s been saying this all along, or this is different than what she said, or that’s actually not what those experts agree with,” Kelly said.

Eads noted that this particular style of journalism has the potential to fill in gaps left by social media.

“One thing that you have to be able to be successful these days, is provide a better experience than things like Twitter and Facebook,” Eads said. “And this managed to do that, in a way.”

the future of fact checking

Graves said he hopes the way this election cycle has shaped fact-checking continues.

Even in regular news pieces unrelated to the election, Graves said he’s starting to notice reporters make fact checks more freely. In the past, he said, journalists would refrain from challenging a source within a straight news report out of a fear of being accused of bias.

“There’s no good journalistic argument for repeating a claim in a news story that you know to be false without noting that it’s false,” Graves said. “I think journalistically, that’s indefensible, and we’re seeing a sort of cultural shift to accept that.”

As for NPR’s live fact check, he applauded the effort but hopes to see more fact-checking integrated into the debates themselves, either through moderators or video clips.

“If it’s built into the debate format itself,” Graves said. “The candidates themselves are actually confronted with the fact checks.”

Cadence Bambenek is a fellow for the Center for Journalism Ethics. She is a student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Editing Trump’s words

Last Friday, The Washington Post published video footage from 2005 of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump making crude remarks about his seemingly unwelcome advances on women.

The reporting following the video’s publication prompted Poynter to take a look at how regulations and editorial decisions led different outlets to either publish Trump’s raw, unedited words, or cleaned up transcripts.

From The Post, to The Guardian, Fox News, and CNN, Poynter broke down each newsroom’s decision to edit’s Trump’s words.

You can read Poynter’s full piece here.