As journalists and media professionals, we don’t like to think someone is better at our job than we are, especially those who seek to undermine our work with misleading or outright made up narratives. So when I ask journalists, “What does disinformation do better than journalism?” I expect a few raised eyebrows.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to present my forthcoming research project to a selected group of professionals in journalism, technology, education and philanthropy at the Newsgeist unconference, organized annually by Google and the Knight Foundation at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix.
On Saturday morning, An Xiao Mina, Director of Product for Meedan and strategy lead for the Credibility Coalition, and I led a conversation with attendees examining the strengths of journalism and disinformation and what we in media should seek to learn from those strengths. We cheekily called it “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” inspired by none other than the first-year wizardry class in the Harry Potter universe, where students learn about dark magic and how to handle it.
We split the group into four small groups and challenged them to come up with examples of unique strengths of high quality journalism and the countering strengths of effective disinformation. Here is a sampling of what the group came up with.
Strengths of High Quality Journalism*:
- Institutional trust
- Experience and professional training
- Many steps, voices and layers involved before publishing
- Rules of ethics, code of conduct
- Legal liability for what is published
- Brand recognition
- Adherence to industry norms of objectivity and fairness
- A shared mission to inform and tell the truth
- Support and checks by editors and copyeditors
- Audience participation
- Empathy through a community connection
- Complicity in community action
- Complexity in explaining big data, trends and human stories
* We are well aware these are strengths exhibited in only the best of newsrooms. Not all publishers are created equal in this regard (but it would be cool if they were).
Strengths of Effective Disinformation:
- Speed of publishing
- Novelty and excitement of new information
- Responsiveness to news events and reactions
- Cooperative amplification between competitors
- Simplification of difficult subject matter
- Trust through a lack of affiliation and complicity with institutions
- Liberated from legal and ethical norms
- Playing to emotions, fears, biases and reactions
- Recognition of altruism as a motive for publishing (i.e. shedding a light on unknown/hidden information)
- Audience participation (i.e. share this to help spread the word)
- Tapping into a community’s passions and beliefs
- Allowing the audience to feel as if they are part of an investigation or exposure of truths
- Engaging visuals
- Drives a desire to share
- Successful business model driven by attention economics
- Great at targeting on Facebook and other social networks
- Offering related content on the same topics
- Identity validation of the reader
The bolded strengths above were those we as a group felt are aspirational to be adapted into (or improved) in legitimate journalism practice. Obviously we do not want to incorporate unethical or illegal behavior into our practice, nor do we want to engage in any of the extremes of disinformation. “Simplification of difficult subject matter” in a disinformation context might be oversimplification, and “Drives a desire to share” might be “Manipulations emotions to compel sharing.” It’s important that journalists working in good faith get the balance right.
But many of these strengths are worth of being aspirational. Some of them — like “engaging visuals” and “drives a desire to share” — are skills we are always seeking to improve to compete on a level playing field with more social media-savvy outlets. Others — like “tapping into a community’s passions and beliefs” — are strengths we used to have as news practitioners, but maybe have lost our way in some markets.
These conversations also brought about questions for further reflection in our newsrooms and communities about how we as journalists might improve and what affect those changes might have. These questions also inform my own questions as I embark on my JSK fellowship research.
How is best for news outlets to show information contextually? What effect, if any, does that have on its trustworthiness?
What is the effect of decontexualization of information on the audience?
How much does the brand of the news outlets matter (if at all)?
Does personalization of the news affect its trustworthiness to skeptical audiences?
What is the role of psychological self-preservation in building “echo chambers” for our news consumption?
So what do you think?
Do you agree or disagree with anything in the above strengths lists? What else would you want journalism to learn from disinformation and those who participate in it?
Feel free to comment below or start yelling at me and everyone else on the social network of your choice.
An Xiao Mina contributed to this post. Read more about this year’s Newsgeist from Mathew Ingram