World over, disinformation is a virus that continues to permeate newsrooms giving media managers and journalists a headache on how to deal with it. At times the checks and safeguards put in place are not enough to prevent its spread. It gets even more pronounced during election cycles, like the current situation in Kenya where rival political camps sow and spew all manner of fake contents aimed at maligning rivals.
But in the face of such challenges, how should media houses and journalists deal with disinformation? Dr. Myriam Redondo a Spanish veteran journalist, newsroom trainer in digital verification & OSINT and associate professor in International Relations (PhD) explains how to tackle the virus in an interview with EAST Site writer Isaac Swila.
Before we get to the thrust of the interview, you pioneered verification trainings in Spain in 2012. What has changed in 10 years?
My first courses on verification trainings where more focused on used generated contents, for example the videos recorded by citizens during the Arab springs. They were disorganized and spontaneous contents, some of them misinformative or out of context, coming from faraway places. After 2016, when Donald Trump won the elections, disinformation became a phenomenon more related to international political interference and to the so-called “fake-news”, with sophisticated actors planning disinformation campaigns. Nowadays, “fake news” is perceived as a concept too narrow, because many of those contents have mutated and can’t be called news anymore: they are memes, audios, images… At least in specialized European forums, we usually talk about “fake contents” or just fakes.
In your training in Kenya, you’ve explained how lack of professional standards affects journalists and media houses. What’s the solution?
In Spain, media houses are always in crisis, whether it is for economic reasons or for technological reasons. It is difficult to cope with the 21st century’s changes and to build a profitable brand. Under that pressure, and with low wages, journalists can make a lot of mistakes.
Some of the disinformation that passes the checks is as a result of thin newsrooms and lack of time. Also, lack of mentors. Some newsrooms have sacked a lot of journalists, leaving behind a thin work force which lacks references and is overwhelmed, and it explains why some of these things pass through.
So how can journalists be helped?
It is necessary to understand that they are not machines and that the important thing is not to be the first (because in the future, social networks will always be the first, as users and citizen journalists do not feel compelled to devote time to verify information), but to be the one who gives the highest quality information. That means to check, to check and to check again before publishing any piece of news. If you are very fast many times but make a big mistake once, people will remember you only for the mistake.
You say that as gate keepers it is key that they recover trust from society.
Yes. Only in that way people will go back to media outlets to have accurate knowledge of the things that happen, instead of reading about them in any site which does not follow professional standards. To regain that trust, it is necessary that they publish their own investigations, but also that they help citizens to clarify the news that they may find somewhere else (or that they receive via private messaging apps). They have to become “guides” in an entangled Internet.
And what about the media houses? What can they do?
Besides manpower, probably media houses must invest in verification (trainings and technology). Quite a number of media houses don’t have verification desks and don’t organize in-company verification-trainings. It goes a long way in showing that concerted efforts are needed to defeat the purveyors of fake news.
Also, technology to analyse and visualize complex sets of information is more and more available. Some newsrooms in the West are investing heavily on them and specifically on Artificial Intelligence for fact-checking. I think it will help strengthen verification, to distinguish deep fakes from real videos, for example, though the main tool will always be our brain.
In your book “Digital Verification for Journalists” (2018), you explain easy and free verification tools.
That is right, ‘Digital Verification for Journalists’ is a handbook against fakes and international disinformation. As journalists, we have to verify, but we also should help citizens to verify themselves, to be autonomous in that task. The book explains the basics of the disinformation & misinformation phenomenon and exposes how many practical steps a citizen can take individually to avoid fakes. It is a book intended to empower both journalists and citizens.
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