Truth used to be an absolute. In today’s world, it feels less so.
Or maybe that’s just nostalgia.
While facts have always been cherry-picked to make an argument stand, the ability to see and understand the context of those facts used to be more of a constant. The media, an institution whose role has been to provide context for facts, to demonstrate that conflicting facts exist, and to provide some semblance of objectivity, increasingly is under attack.
No, this is not another rant against the media being called “the enemy of the people.” The undermining of media goes back further. As the digital revolution came into being, traditional media was one of the first to grapple with what that change meant to the business model of journalism.
Now, years later, the media continue to adapt, but unfortunately still has not found a strong foothold.
We have seen the pace of reporting speed up, the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle, the number of full-time journalists and editors drop, and (not surprisingly) the quality of reporting (in some cases) decline.
This week, dictionary.com named “misinformation” the word of the year. Unlike disinformation or actual “fake news,” misinformation can happen accidentally. It can be introduced by mistake and spread by those who trust the source. Journalists sometimes get facts wrong. Sometimes the substantiation of facts can be greater or lesser.
The easy thing to do is to declare it all fake news. But the truth is more complicated.
Before the digital revolution, checks and balances existed in the newsroom. Journalists and editors had time, they weren’t constantly rushing to the next story. And often, they had a fact-checker. Someone whose sole job it was to verify the information being reported. Fact-checkers and copy editors were once our first line of defense against misinformation. Yet, in the great newsroom purges of the last decade, fact-checkers have become a luxury most newsrooms cannot afford.
Science journalists, like all journalists, remain vulnerable to the same lack of resources that plague traditional media. The coverage of topics related to science, environment and health requires that reporters not only deliver relevant stories, but decode and translate complex, often jargon-filled research.
It’s estimated that researchers publish 2.5 million scientific papers per year, which averages out to more than 6,800 per day. Many of these papers contain conflicting findings. Journalists are left to sort through the studies and ideally provide the context for understanding. And, they are doing it without a net.
Most science journalists are freelancers, not tethered to a newsroom with the resources to support their reporting. Even their editors tend to be freelancers. And fact-checkers, people trained to check and double check the reporting and assumptions behind these reports, well those seem to be a thing of the past.
A recent report on fact-checking in science journalism out of MIT found that only 34 percent of outlets have dedicated fact-checkers. The majority expect editors and the reporters themselves to handle fact-checking. Doing so eliminates a reviewer who is an arms-length from the development of the content. Someone who can take a step back and identify potential leaps or gaps in logic or assumptions.
Coverage of the report in the Columbia Journalism Review explains the far-reaching implications of these findings: “The mistrust arising from inconsistency points to the larger role of fact-checking, beyond ensuring accuracy and helping to avoid lawsuits. Journalists trade on reliability, to their readers, to their sources, and to the public that they serve. An independent fact-checking process provides another layer of assurance to all parties that a story best represents the truth — just like the peer-review process is designed to do in science.”
Funders interested in improving public understanding of science, as well as the quality of journalism, can help address these gaps. Given the state of the field, even relatively limited resources will go a long way. The recommendations outlined in the MIT report prioritized the creation of a field-wide code of ethics, as well as instructions, checklists, guidance, training and web-based resources for fact-checkers.
The Moore Foundation recently funded a grant to the MIT Knight School of Journalism to develop some these resources and pilot test curricula within science journalism programs. Our hope is that this preliminary work will help establish a foundation upon which universities and media outlets can build and improve fact-checking practices in science, environment and health journalism.
Holly Potter is the chief communications officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.