Daniel Acosta-Ramos, investigative researcher at First Draft News, shares best practices in fact-checking and monitoring misinformation. Joy Mayer, founder of Trusting News, discusses how local journalists can demonstrate credibility and build trust in their reporting. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists webinar. Today we are going to be discussing misinformation and trust in media with Daniel Acosta-Ramos, Joy Mayer, and Carla Anne Robbins. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. This webinar is part of CFR's Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you connect the local issues you cover in your communities to global dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on issues of international importance and provides a forum for sharing best practices. So thank you all for being with us. I want to remind you that this webinar is on the record, and we will circulate the video, transcript, and other resources after the fact. We'll also post it on our website, CFR.org/localjournalists.
We've shared full bios prior to this webinar, so I'm just going to give you a few highlights of our distinguished panel. Daniel Acosta-Ramos is an investigative researcher at First Draft News. His work includes researching myths and disinformation on Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S. Originally from Venezuela, Mr. Acosta-Ramos has previously worked on projects to monitor social unrest in his home country. Prior to First Draft News, he worked as a security analyst for Oxy. Joy Mayer is the director of Trusting News, a research and training project that empowers journalists to demonstrate credibility and earn trust. She's also an adjunct faculty member at the Poynter Institute. Prior to Trusting News, she spent twenty years working in newsrooms and teaching, including at the Missouri School of Journalism. And Carla Anne Robbins is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She's faculty director of the master of international affairs program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. And previously, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. So welcome to all of you. Thank you for being with us. I'm going to turn the conversation now over to Carla to have the exchange amongst the three of you, and then we'll turn to all of you for your questions and comments. Carla, over to you.
ROBBINS: Thank you so much, Irina. It's great to see you as always. Thank you so much, Daniel and Joy, if I may, and thank you so much for joining us. It's always a delight to talk to our colleagues and such an incredible time in journalism in such an incredibly challenging time in local journalism in particular. So thank you guys for joining us. I know you’ve got a lot of questions for Joy and Daniel, but I'm going to start at the prerogative of the moderator because I've got my questions, too. So, Daniel, I'm going to start with you. In 2016 when I started writing about misinformation, the focus was all on one area, the U.S. elections, and one malign actor, the Russians and their amplifiers. So today's ecosystem, which is a nice way of basically saying swamp, is far more complex and a hell of a lot scarier. And the mistrust in the press is a hell of a lot more profound. So can you describe right now what are some of the main issues—it's a lot more than the election—that are drawing the most misinformation? And who are the actors? It's not just the Russians. So who do we got to worry about out there? It's a scary place.
ACOSTA-RAMOS: It is indeed a scary place. And first, just thank you for the invitation. It's an honor to be with you all. And just to answer your question, the ecosystem, which is a word that I use a lot, of misinformation and the misinformation landscape is vastly diverse. And as you said, it's not only the Russians, it's not only the Venezuelan Army, or the turkey marketing company. We have a lot of misinformation growing out and about in U.S. space—Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels. So the misinformation that we were kind of introduced in 2016 is vastly different. The themes and topics are just basically infinite. There is a strong feeling, there is a strong base of misinformation spreaders that take on politics, the big lie, and other, you know, U.S. policy-related issues. But the big thing that we're seeing now is health misinformation. And health misinformation goes beyond just the vaccine, the Pfizer shot, or the Johnson and Johnson shot. It goes to the safety of things that we take for granted such as the MMR vaccine and other, you know, medical advancements that we had had for a very long time. And this new wave of health misinformation is coming from people, from influencers, from content creators that are not labeled. They're not identified as misinformation spreaders. They might be a wellness instructor, a yoga teacher, or any other popular, seamlessly, inoffensive content creator that is actually spreading misinformation. So this swamp, as you tell it, is completely different than in 2016. And it's something that we researchers and journalists and local journalists have to handle. Yes, misinformation has a little bit of a Russian bot operative and that kind of stuff, but most of the content that we're seeing in our Facebook feed, in our Instagram posts, in our WhatsApp groups actually comes from people just like you and me that got something and shared it accidentally because it generated a strong emotional reaction.
ROBBINS: So are these real people? I mean, because of course in 2016 they looked like real people, but then we found out they actually weren't real people. They were bots or they were people sitting in St. Petersburg who were sharing things. A lot of these things you're talking about are also being amplified. If you go on to RT, you know, or on Russian sites or on other sites, you see that sort of vaccine misinformation is also being put out because it goes through a, you know, it creates fundamental mistrust in our institutions. But those are real yoga instructors pushing these things out? Why? Why are they doing it? They seem so healthy.
ACOSTA-RAMOS: Without no doubt I want to reiterate this. There is, you know, some bad actors in foreign countries—Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, many others. But what we're seeing day to day is that those yoga instructors that are real people—and this is a confession I have to make. I was actually following one of those misinformation spreaders in my feed. So once, at some point of my life, I actually liked what the yoga teacher had to say and I followed him. And now I have vaccine activists spreading misinformation in my personal feed. This misinformation, you know, basically spreads to everybody. It's not a problem of people who are highly educated or working class. No, it will affect us all because it is, you know, everywhere. And yes, they are real people. Yes, they are yoga instructors, wellness stores, even doctors. And to determine, you know, what is their motive, it's really, really hard. There are a few things that we, you know, suspect. First, there is a financial incentive for misinformation spreaders. If you have a big YouTube audience or if you have a big Facebook audience or you have a big Telegram audience, you can monetize that through merchandising, through monetization, and views. And there's even people that will use features, like Super Chat, that will let you, in YouTube, donate directly to the content creator live while they're broadcasting. So one big part of it is that it is a financial incentive for people that express misinformation, because sadly, it's popular. And there's other people that actually believe in those things that we might consider discredited or, you know, antiscience. So I think those two things, basically, like a cult mentality and a financial incentive, are two powerful reasons for why people create misinformation. But the other side of the coin is that people share misinformation, regular people just like you and me that share misinformation because we received this almost apocalyptical message that triggers an emotional reaction in ourselves. And then we send it to her friends and family, to my dad or my uncle because I'm worried about the situation. And almost unconsciously, we're part of this gigantic misinformation ecosystem.
ROBBINS: So I'm going to come back to you and talk about how we deal with this as reporters in a minute, but I want to go Joy. So Joy, in 2017 the national media had something of a reckoning about how we had blown it in covering the campaign. You know, everyone was chasing after Hillary's emails the way six-year-olds all chase after a soccer ball, which was that, once again, too benign a description of how we blew it. But even now there's still a tendency to blame others for the lack of trust in the press. It's the trolls, it's Donald Trump, both of whom actually deserve an enormous amount of blame for the lack of trust. But, you know, the mission of Trusting News is, you say, you identify things news audiences don't understand about how journalism works and use engagement and transparency strategies to rebuild trust. What are the sources of this mistrust? How much of it is due to misinformation and how much of it is due to—how much of it is our responsibility? How much of it is more profound things going on in our society because we got to figure out what the problem is before we can figure out how to fix it.
MAYER: Yes, I think that it's really important to understand the complexity of the situation. Even a concept like misinformation can mean so many different things. Like a yoga teacher sharing, in good faith, something that's not accurate about how careful we need to be about what we put in our bodies and maybe the vaccines, like, let's say, for whatever, that's misinformation and especially for local journalists, that is something they're hearing and that is something their audience is hearing and genuinely struggling with how to process. That's why when we're talking about local journalism, specifically, you know, it's a different landscape if your job is to cover Russian influence in the election versus what is my community hearing that is preventing them from making well-informed decisions about our shared democracy, our shared community, their family safety, whatever it is. And so, you know, when it comes to really processing different sources of information, we really preach a transparency, I mean, an empathy around the difficulty of being a news consumer because it is really tough sometimes to tell what is a legit news source, where information is coming from. I don't know about you guys but I get a lot of Facebook messages from people in my own networks because I'm like the journalist people know, right, and they'll say, “Joy, help me figure out if this source is legit.” And sometimes it's actually not that easy to tell if the source is legit. Most people are not news junkies. They don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out where they get their news. They don't think about it that much. They don't give money to any news. They have a casual relationship with information sources. So for them to figure out which ones are ethical, responsible, well-sourced, well-intentioned, staffed by professionals, it's actually complicated. And so that casual relationship also means they don't spend that much time wondering how news works. They genuinely don't know that the reason we spent so much time in the story on this side of the story and had only one sentence from this other side of the story is because that's all we could get. Not that we have an agenda that means that we purposely left most of their side of the story out, right? People don't know that, and there's no reason they should know it because we can wish that they knew it. But they don't know it because we don't explain ourselves. So, there are a lot of reasons that people don't trust the news. Some of its institutional, you know, people don't trust the government and the military and banks and religion as much as higher education. You know, trust is falling in institutions all over the place. But when it comes to what local journalists can do, we really start by figuring out what kind of feedback are you getting about what people do and don't understand about your own work and the information landscape in your community and how can you improve that.
ROBBINS: So the polling of those suggests that certainly, or most recent polling, which is a 2019 Gallup/Knight polling, suggests that people trust local news more than they trust bad people like me and national news—they particularly hated the New York Times—but they still trust local news a lot less than they trust even local government. So is it, you know, just a general loss of faith in institutions? Is that what we're grappling with? Or is it because social media and there's just a cacophony there and the press is seen as just one more extension of people who don't even distinguish it? You know, everybody's got their own truth and your—is that what's really going on here? I mean, what is it that we're really up against that makes people so fundamentally mistrust “the press” and particularly the local press, which, you know, people really used to see as, you know, a fundamentally really trustworthy institution.
MAYER: It's true that people trust local news more. And it's true that trust in local news is declining and that people used to trust it. They also used to trust just network news. You know, I think that the national conversation and messaging around journalists as enemies of the people and the fake news, like, that is absolutely trickling down. You know, when I sit down with weekly newspaper publishers in Texas who've served their same communities for decades, their relationship with the people they serve has changed because the messages that people are receiving about the role of journalism and society, the perceived agenda of journalists, who journalists even are, it definitely has an impact up and down the food chain of journalism. It just cannot be overstated how complicated it is to try to sift through information and the barrage of information that's constantly coming at us and how many choices people have. There is a 100 percent huge increase in irresponsible messages coming at people. And so, you know, one thing I think is really important to remember is that we don't deserve automatic credit just because we have the title of journalist. There are a lot of things done in the name of journalism that I think are irresponsible or unethical or sensational or not a reputable place I would point people, right?
So I'm not here to defend the whole industry of journalism. I'm here to say if you do mission-driven, responsible, ethical, professional journalism, you need to explain to people what sets you apart from the rest. That's not an automatic thing. The fact that I work at this news brand, that maybe they haven't even heard of or haven't actually really consumed, or maybe they always get me confused with my less responsible competitors—it is complicated to be a news consumer. There are people who have beefs or assumptions or really justified perceptions of news organizations that has caused them to have lower trust. But I also think it's important to keep in mind that a lot of people have very casual relationships and have been misled by information enough times that they kind of just go over it and don't trust anyone.
ROBBINS: So I want to come back to you about the services you provide and how you can help people deal with it. A lot of this is self-awareness, not just, you know, what you're going to be pushing out. Some of it is just self-awareness about exactly what you said, which is we can't take it for granted anymore. Let's talk to Daniel, and I'm just going to ask if we can share something from your pretty fab website. So thanks so much, Joy, for doing that. So, Daniel, can you talk a little bit about, you know, the challenge here, which is as much as we can automatically, you know, rely on trust, part of our job, actually, is to translate, to debunk. You know, people don't have the time to do this. And one of the reasons people call Joy is because they do sort of expect you to sort out the BS from the non-BS. And so how do we as reporters, and particularly as local reporters that don't have infinite resources, how do we get ahead of the wave? It's a hell of a lot harder to debunk something when it's really fixed in people's minds. How do you get ahead of a story? And one of the things that you guys do there is raise the alert when something is bubbling up. So certainly they can go to your Vaccine Insights Hub and warn people about trending stories about, you know, something on YouTube, which says that vaccines are actually abortion drugs or something like that. But how do you get ahead of the wave just as it's coming rather than letting it get really fixed in people's minds?
ACOSTA-RAMOS: I think the secret to that recipe, which actually lies in local journalists, is that when we detect a new narrative, a new thing that is bubbling as you said, a new thing that we catch in, you know, a yoga teacher's Instagram feed, or Telegram, or in the dark places on the internet is that it's better to “prebunk” than debunk and preemptively alert your community of the things you may see or might explode, you know, in a few days or in a few weeks. When we structure information as a “prebunk” before it actually explodes, the communities already know what is BS and what it's not, who is the actor involved, what are the claims, and what is the actual fact. So I think “prebunking” is an extremely effective tool, especially for local journalists because most of the narratives we catch, most of the, you know, perpetual false claims that we detect originate in local groups, originate in local communities, you know, in this new Parks and Recreation Facebook group or in this Navajo Nation meeting place in Facebook or in Instagram. From that local place it gets, you know, to the point in which it is shared about this national voice of misinformation or those really important misinformation spreaders at a national level. It does originate locally, and if we can target misinformation at a local level preemptively early, the fact it will have after it goes mainstream, let's call it that way, it will be way less. So I think, and this is something that we preach at First Draft a lot that “prebunking” is absolutely necessary. Of course, we have to be responsible with something that we call the tipping point. It's not exact science; it's more of an art. If you do it too early you pose the risk of informing, you know, something completely unnecessary to your community. But if you do it too late, it's already in their brains and we will have some of a confirmation bias. So it's definitely a challenge, but I think local communities, local journalists, community newspapers have a great advantage that they know their community, they know what they're talking about. So I will say that that's the place to start.
ROBBINS: So tell me a little bit more about what's a “prebunk” story for a local journalist. I mean, I'm looking right now on my screen very closely because I've got many things going on my screen, including my questions for you guys. So, the merging narratives, okay? The guidance around hugging in the UK as far as claims and undermining trust in COVID-19 vaccine or tourism agencies. I mean, tell me something that, I mean, hugging would be a good story, but I thought the abortion one on YouTube was a particularly worrisome one because abortion is such an emotional issue. How do you, A, decide—I mean that's on YouTube. You guys found that on YouTube. How do you, A, decide, and I understand that's art more than science, that it's bubbling up enough that it's worth raising rather than running the danger that you're going to be an amplifier by writing about it, and B, how do you write about it in a way that, you know, that you actually can debunk it, you know, that is it persuasive?
ACOSTA-RAMOS: Well, the first one is when we see claims or narratives in different platforms, it's a good time that the tipping point is getting closer
ROBBINS: [Inaudible] when it's cross-fertilizing?
ACOSTA-RAMOS: Exactly. If we see the same thing on the dark, you know, sites on the internet and then we immediately we see it on Facebook or on Twitter, it's probably time to alert our community-based organizations, journalists, local journalists, you know, from that claim. The other question is how do we make it, you know, shareable? I love a good explainer, and I think people love it too. A quick format, beautifully done, lots of infographics that will explain in an easy way not to say whatever the yoga teacher said—the yoga teachers will hate me after this panel—but whatever the yoga teacher said is false. Instead of saying that, just explain the circumstances and the facts without mentioning the yoga teacher. Don't give the stage to the misinformation spreader. Do not repeat the lie. Just state the facts and alert your community. You might be seeing some claims that said that, you know, vaccine causes abortion or you can share this spike protein. That is not true. Here's the data. Here's a trusted voice. Here's here, here's that. And something, and I think this is particularly important for vaccines and particularly important for local journalists, is that you need to find a local voice that, you know, it's an expert about this. For instance, I'm based in Houston, Texas, and we have Dr. Hotez, who is this fantastic scientist that knows a lot about vaccines and how they work. I rather use Dr. Hotez instead of Dr. Fauci because people actually know this guy here in Houston. And we need to find these local voices that will have some sort of relationship with the communities we're serving and that, I think, will not solve but it will ease some of the untrustworthiness that people have toward media, and that's the coast elitism or the New York-centrism or the Washington-centrism. And I think, you know, it's just a little bit of help to fight, you know, both misinformation and trust in your outlets.
ROBBINS: Great. Okay, that is it. So before I take down the shared the screen, I did want to say that one of the services you can provide and that your website can provide is you guys can do the digging and raise the alarm when things are beginning to cross-fertilize, when you think that they're bubbling up to that. That's one of the jobs that you do at First Draft. So people can go to your website and see what's bubbling up. But what you're saying is then they do the reporting in their local community to where the credibility is? That's basically the advice you're giving.
ACOSTA-RAMOS: Correct. And we also have tons of resources, especially when it comes with vaccines because we acknowledge that, until this point, probably if you were a reporter in the community level, you didn't cover vaccinations. You didn't cover a rollout of a new technology that took, you know, thousands of millions of dollars to develop. We created a long format of several trainings for the vaccine. It's available in the Vaccine Hub. It's a fantastic resource that is available in different languages. So for local journalists that serve immigrant communities and for local journalists that serve, you know, people that may not speak English, it is available in French, Spanish, Hindi, and other languages. So I highly recommend that and not just the research that we do but the training and media resource that we have as well.
ROBBINS: That's great. Thank you so much. So we're going to go to Joy now, who also has a fabulous website. I'm equally blown away by your website and all the advice and services you two provide for journalists. So if we can put up your website, which is great. So, you know, we were talking before that a lot of this is transparency and self-awareness. So can you talk, you know, you've got these series of tips here. People can sign up for your newsletter but, you know, talk to me about your theory of the case about what journalists have to do to, A, develop self-awareness, and B, to reach out to the community to deal with this wave of misinformation and the lack of trust?
MAYER: Yes, I mean, journalists like to think that we can overwhelm people with facts and that will take care of the situation. So here's the, you know, twenty-seven-point list of reasons why you can trust the vaccine is not going to have nearly as much effect as, to Daniel's point, a local doctor you trust saying, “Guys, it's really okay. Your family is going to be okay. Go ahead and do this.” And, you know, to get researching for a second, we talked about the distinction between cognitive trust, which is like the brainy trust, and effective trust, which is I feel like you're on my side. I feel connected to you. I think I can trust you. You're one of the good guys. And so, really, for local journalists, we talk a lot about what basic things do people not understand about you and what is your counternarrative. So, for example, if you get a lot of complaints on your Facebook feed of people saying, “Why are you posting the story on Facebook when I can't read it because there's a paywall? You should only post it if it's free.” Well, have you explained why you need revenue from your community? How much of your budget that costs? How many local staff positions that get money from that? You know, how little the money is? How advertising dollars work? Whatever it is, do you have a counternarrative about why you charge for news and why that's important? So often we don't take time to explain it. We just think, gosh, people think we're greedy, like, that's dumb. They don't know what they're talking about.
And so if you want to be trusted to provide credible information, they need to understand who you are. You don't get automatic trust. And so for us we'll take something like, oh, people are complaining about paywall. People complain about bias and Associated Press stories. People complain about, you know, their perceptions of like national and world news, and they think your local TV station is so biased but really what they're complaining about is the CNN feed that runs on your website or whatever it is. So we just talk a lot about understanding what do people actually think of you, what did they not know, and what are you actually doing to clear that up or are you just wishing that they understood? So, like Daniel, I think those of us who work in sort of the journalism support space are, like, both really grateful when we get journalists' attention. Thank you to those of you showing up today. And, like, hey, you guys. This is free. We can help you. There are a lot of resources here that can help you if you're trying to figure out how to do this.
ROBBINS: So I thought, you know, you got in your COVID, which is a little bit further down on this page. I mean, your number one tip, which I actually wish the U.S. government would follow as well. I remember when I was an editorial writer and people would call me from the Obama administration and I would every once in a while lose it and say, “I'm tired of doing your work. Why do I have to explain? You need to explain.” But your number one tip is telling your audience that COVID-19 information might change, that it's not, like, this is the number one critique of them. You tell us masks are one thing and whatever.
MAYER: I mean, people are holding on to that, that mask discrepancy from, you know, twelve months ago, people are holding on to and it's super-breaking news coverage as well. Like, if you told us there were two people who died in this shooting and now you're saying it was just one, were you hiding it from us? Do you not care about the facts? What is it? And you're, like, that's what the police said and then we learned more. Like, that's how these things work, right? That's how science works. You learn more. That's how reporting works. You learn more. But people don't know that. They're not giving us automatic credit for it, and so we can accept that or we can do something to try to educate them.
ROBBINS: So, this is an interesting question about are we changing the way the basic structure of a news story? I mean, rather than putting this in a correction or putting it in a box or putting it way down in B matter, does context have to progress a lot higher up into a news story in a context of time in which people are so skeptical of “we told you X and now we have to tell you why?” Are you talking about a fundamental change in the way in which we structure news stories?
MAYER: Yes, I am. And we have some great research that shows that people appreciate it. We did some focus groups of TV stations that say, you know, you add a total of twenty seconds maybe to an on-air story that explains why you're doing the story and something about a decision you made while doing the story. People find the story and the station more credible. It's not a heavy lift, but it is a 100 percent update in what we think the job of journalism is. It's understanding our audience well enough to know, you know, they might assume this about us or they might not know all of the time we spend making decisions in the newsroom. It's all invisible unless we talk about it. You know, the thirty minutes we spent on should we name this person, which photos should we use, how big a deal is this story, how do we replay a similar story last year—all of its invisible. And yet we pat ourselves in the back for it and feel good about it and are frustrated that we're not getting credit for it.
ROBBINS: So I have a million more questions for you guys, but we already have a question in the Q&A. So I'm going to turn this over to Irina, who's going to who is going to invite people. I'm going to come back because I have more questions. Irina?
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. So now we'll go to all of you. If you can raise your hand and accept the “unmute” prompt and tell us who you are when I call on you. So let me just get up. We've got—
ROBBINS: Somebody already got in. Rickey Bevington got in first on the Q&A.
FASKIANOS: There you go. Rickey from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Thank you, Ricky, for your question. Tips for finding out about local misinformation before it goes viral. We'd have to assign a reporter to sit on Nextdoor and get invited into thousands of private Facebook groups. Who wants to take that one?
ACOSTA-RAMOS: I can say Nextdoor is a hugely problematic space. And it's hugely problematic because if you're doing research like me for several different cities or several different states and you know, it's kind of impossible to get invited to eighty or eighty-five different communities. It is hugely problematic. You know, basically you can post whatever you want there and be a misinformation spreader and basically you won't ever get kicked out or, you know, even get an alert that you're sharing misinformation. So it's a place where all misinformation, conspiracy theories, and bad things live. And it's an app that most of American suburbia have installed on their phones. So, I think it's a great thing for you to be there but just be mindful and careful that people may not need to hear another story about 5G causing cancer or something like that. And just be mindful of the beaten pieces that you grab and try to—what we do and what we find the most interesting is when we see patterns. I'll go again with vaccine shedding and abortions for people that are not vaccinated because it was really strong in community-based groups. We saw the pattern in one group in Facebook and Instagram. When we saw it in different places we had to alert our community-based organizations and are part of the journalism [inaudible]. So if you see a pattern on local Facebook groups on Nextdoor, which is hugely problematic, in a Telegram channel, which is, I think, an important space also to be, it might be the best, you know, the best time to alert your partners and your newsroom
ROBBINS: The real question that I think Rickey is asking is one of the resources which is, you know, most local news organizations don't have the resources to sit on Nextdoor. You know, when I was at the Times, we had the resources for people to spend on things like that. I don't know about Nextdoor, I'm now showing my age but certainly, I mean, there are people whose job is to spend all their time looking at Twitter. So, why can't a local news organization do that doesn't have somebody assigned to do this full time? Do you guys monitor Nextdoor as well? Are there, you know, Joy, do you know about, you know, other local sources, you know, that are locally organized and pooling resources potentially to do this? You know, Patch doesn't exist anymore but, you know, is there like a disinformation resource there or something like that?
MAYER: I don't know in terms of sort of collaboratives to sort of take on the work. What we really recommend is that the investment of time you spend listening to your community, which is basically what we're talking about, right, monitoring community conversations, you obviously can't monitor all of them nor should you try. And that's always been the case that it's not worthwhile to do it all the time. But when it matters a lot, when you're trying to reach out to a specific community, you're going to listen more to what they have to say. When you're really investing in a specific topic, you're going to figure out where people are talking about that topic, right? So I do think that if covering vaccine adoption in your community is part of your beat, you are going to look for places where people in your community are talking about vaccines. That doesn't mean, you know, it could come up in any one of thousands of Facebook groups. But there are some worth probably more likely, right? I definitely could point to the ones in my community where it would be worthwhile for a reporter to be there. And what we're suggesting is an update on what you're listening for. Not just story ideas, which reporters have always known where in their community to look for story ideas like you're eavesdropping at the coffee shop. There's this one Facebook group where parents hang out and the education reporter pays attention, whatever it is. Instead of just listening for story ideas, listen for misassumptions about what you cover. Listen for people spreading misinformation. Listen for misassumptions about you and your ethics and your integrity as a news organization and then decide I can address all of it, but where does it seem like it's risen to the level where this could be actually problematic or this person talking actually has a wide audience or this person is saying they also saw it over here. So we need to be on the record clearing that one up.
ROBBINS: So we have another question.
FASKIANOS: Yes, from John Allison. The number of our readers who see the AP is biased is so alarming. Thanks, Joy, to you for knowing that. Could you talk a little bit more? He'd like to hear more about that from others. Are you hearing the same?
MAYER: So at Trusting News, actually, we are just wrapping up a project where we worked with twenty-something newsrooms to interview people who lean right in their communities about what they think about local news. And as I've been checking in with each of those newsrooms to see what those interviews were like, I was talking to an editor in Missouri this morning who said she was just blown away by how many perceptions of her community newspaper were based on perceptions of her staff's selection of and placement of and headline writing for Associated Press stories. It is frustrating and alarming and sometimes out of local journalists' control. I'm sure some of you work at news organizations where there's a hub somewhere that picks the AP stories and you don't even have anything to do with it and yet your community is really basing a lot of their perception on that. I think one problem is that journalists don't see that really as part of what they're offering. They don't really take ownership over it a lot of times and yet people do turn to you for all the information you're providing. So it is a choice in your newsroom or your news organization to say people need state, national, and international coverage. We are going to get that from the Associated Press. We pay for the rights to publish that. We trust them because of X, Y and Z. There's research that shows that they've covered this for a long time and that they're a solid choice. We don't explain any of that. It's not part of how our local newsrooms think about what they're offering. And so we're working on strategies and have a lot of ideas about what it would look like to just to have a better conversation about what role that covers.
ROBBINS: Can you explain something to me? Why is it that the people mistrust the AP? I mean, the AP, it's like, you know, it's like cream of wheat for God's sake. It's about as basic as you can get.
MAYER: I think a lot of it is story selection. And I think it, I mean, there's no way, as with so many things, about perceptions of news. It's impossible to separate it from the Trump years and the perception that national journalists had nothing but criticism for President Trump and that we covered every sensational tweet and the perception among his supporters that he did not get credit for things that went right. I think if the media diet you're consuming is telling you that the mainstream media won't give Trump credit for anything and jumps on everything, then which AP stories you select is seen as part of that bias and not only the word choice in the stories,
ROBBINS: But is it because it says it's from the AP or is it just anything that's national or international news in your local paper?
MAYER: Well, there aren't a lot of options in most local papers.
ROBBINS: That's not what I'm saying. Is it the mistrust of running national and international stories or is it the mistrust of the byline from the Associated Press?
MAYER: It is the mistrust of national journalism as represented by the Associated Press because that's the only option there.
ROBBINS: So people would rather just have local newspapers that just covered local news?
MAYER: No, they wouldn't actually. Again, most people are not thinking about this all that much. They have a sense that national news coverage is unfair and that journalists are all liberal, that there's an agenda behind all of it and that journalists are selecting stories that reinforce their worldview and purposefully hiding stories that contradict their worldview. And people are being so conditioned for what we call confirmation bias, which is if it's not coming from my worldview, if it's attempting to be neutral, it actually is not fair. It's leaning the other direction. I mean, there are a lot of factors, but fundamentally, if you read your local newspaper and spend the day watching Fox News, then what you see in your local newspaper is not going to match the national narrative you're used to. And it's going to seem as if different things are being highlighted. The tone of the story is different. I do think it is worthwhile for journalists to have more self-reflection around what blind spots we might have because of who we are as journalists and how that separates us from the communities we serve. I was on this morning with a community and a newspaper's editorial page, both lean right, and what that looks like. So lots of conversations to have there, but fundamentally, how local news organizations provide national news is something we need to talk more about.
ROBBINS: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Great. John Allison is with the Pittsburgh Tribune. So I'm going to go next to Geoff Carr, who works at the Sentinel and is also an associate professor at North Idaho College, which is a community college. He's often “shocked by how much vitriol gets directed toward the media.” His students often make claims that the media is biased. I challenged them to send me an example of this or something they consider fake news. I've had two students take me up on that offer and both of them failed to provide a single news article. The first sent me a speech transcript from Nancy Pelosi. The other sent me a letter to the editor, a book review, and a few pieces clearly identified as an editorial or opinion. How can we combat misinformation if so few of our citizens can even recognize legitimate news sources?
ACOSTA-RAMOS: I'm going to say it—media literacy. But media literacy, and I think this is pivotal, this is really important, media literacy has to start in preschool if possible. Not in the university, not in higher education. It has to be—and this is a great project, I think, it's from Washington University that's doing that in high school for high schoolers to identify, you know, the provenance and media sources and media-wise as a [inaudible] project with adolescents, with young people. And I think it's pivotal for the communities to help and to be taught in media literacy standards. Because the root of the problem is that, as Joy said, we have a casual relationship with information. We don't care. You know, most people will just grab whatever they receive in Facebook without thinking about it. And I always will remember this piece of an NPR interview in which a lady basically said, “Oh, I just heard on OAN,” One America News Network, “that this thing happened.” And the reporter asked her, “Have you heard about them before?” And the lady suddenly considered a realization that she has been sharing something from a news network that she doesn't know and she has never heard about. And when she Googles it, she says, “Oh, they share fake news. Well, don't they all?” So this relationship with the media and with the terrible term that is fake news needs to be addressed through media literacy, the younger, the better. I think it's a hard multilateral, you know, conversation that we need to have but mutualistic is really important.
MAYER: I just stuck in the chat, we have a Trust 101 class that we teach and we do one specifically for educators. As part of that we have a collection of assignments educators can use, some developed by people in our class. So Geoff, I stuck a link to that in the chat. You know, there are a lot of assignments you can do to say, “Let's strip away the branding and just look at four ways that a story was covered and see if you can guess who might have done it and analyze what the differences are.” I think it is—so we can, I guess my answer is we can wish that people understood how to vet sources of information. Or we can, like, you know, wish upon a star or we can build things into our processes in our teaching that educate people about that. I am actually floored by how easy it is to not know the difference between news and opinion these days. Our industry does a terrible job at this. It starts with cable news. It's impossible to tell sometimes which talking head is an analyst, a commentator, reporter, or an anchor. Anchors share all kinds of opinions. It's complicated. But even in a newspaper story, maybe in print, it seems really obvious because something's on the opinion page that its opinion, but you know how often that word “opinion” doesn't follow when it's posted on Facebook. So somebody will say your news organization sharing something saying, “Our congressman needs to do this.” And the word opinion isn't there. Maybe if you click through it's a little above the headline but not a first impression. We just do a terrible job differentiating. We need to accept that that level of media literacy is part of our job.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We have a written question from Aly DeMarco, who's at the Daily Beacon in Tennessee. Do you have any tips for how to cover misinformation in a manner that will lower the possibility of being accused of giving a platform to that misinformation?
ACOSTA-RAMOS That's a great question. And, again, this tipping point that we were talking about, it's hard to determine. But when it comes to local issues, I think the tipping point is lower because for the national conversation when I see a post that is be shared two hundred thousand times I know the tipping point is there, right, for a national audience. But if we are talking about, I don't know, a town in Tennessee that when the online chatter has been, you know, substantiated in several groups, I think it's better to alert your community, right, because that misinformation will grow in your community-based organizations and community-based groups. So if maybe three or four neighbors are already talking about it, it's time to address it especially if you live in a small town or a small city. So I'll say there's a bunch of resources in First Draft’s website and for sure in Joy's website as well. So it's free. I'll say it again, please go ahead. You know, there's several things you can do. There's a fantastic SMS course that you can take. It's two weeks. It's free. It's on our website. You will get a text. I think it's actually the best thing you can do, especially for older folks. You know, I enrolled my mom and my dad because they were just getting a lot of misinformation, you know, just sharing it on Facebook. And I was like, “Why?” Because the media literacy again and because it's easy to share. And it's easy to forward. So get the SMS course. It's fantastic. And you will receive bits of information every day for two weeks. And I think after that you will be better equipped to address misinformation especially at the community level.
MAYER: I have one other tip to share about how to make sure your motives are clear when you share information. And that's to tell people why you're sharing it, just speak directly to them. You know, picture radio or TV being able to say, “We know it's complicated to navigate information these days, and we want to make sure that you know something you're hearing just isn't true. And that's why we're going to go ahead and share this with you.” That can work really well in that, sort of, informal language. It works really well in newsletters. It works really well in social. Tech stories or when it can be hardest to sort of sneak in that “here's why we're doing this story,” but it can work with a little box. What if each time you do these stories you had a little box with a story or an editor's note that says, “We don't ever want to contribute to the spreading of misinformation, but we're seeing this shared enough that it seems worthwhile to go ahead and let you know it's not true.” There's not a lot of downsides to that, and it just invites people to consume something in the spirit in which its intended.
ROBBINS: Plus it also creates a personal relationship between you and the reader, which I think does take away some of that angst, that sense of elitism and one hopes could begin to create a certain measure of trust.
MAYER: Yes, and it communicates about your values, right? My goal is for people to not only learn about what you're covering but learn about your values, integrity, and goals as they're consuming your information. Just have a general sense that is—just a drumbeat that you're making decisions carefully, that you have their best interests at heart, that you have a foundation of ethics you're based on. You know, [inaudible] ethics. We don't point to it. Hopefully they're on your website somewhere, but do you ever link to them and say, “in accordance with our ethics policy, we made this decision.” I don't know why we don't do that but we don't.
FASKIANOS: Maybe it's a good time to start it in this day and age. So we have another written question. Nobody's raising their hand. Everybody's putting their questions in the chat, so I will continue reading. Natalie Todaro—she's the editor for the Stute, the student newspaper at Stevens Institute of Technology. “I often find that while we work to serve our community of students, some of these same students don't trust us. What do you recommend in terms of transparency targets, increased editorials to explain newsroom decisions, open forums, notes attached to content?” I think, Joy, that was where you were going so—
MAYER: Yes, I think that especially for a student audience, man, I love video for that—Instagram stories, Facebook live videos. We worked with student media, Annenberg Media at USC in California and they did a wonderful series of sort of behind-the-scenes videos that they did as Instagram videos and then posted on YouTube so they could save them. But it's like, here's why we decided to cover this suicide that happened on campus when we normally wouldn't. Here is why we decided to cover this story in this particular way. It's very humanizing to sort of introduce yourself, like, “We're students too. Here's where I'm from. Here's what I'm studying.” You know, one thing I've learned about journalism is that it's important for this and here's some video of the newsroom. You're welcome to stop by. Like, there's this shroud of mystery that happens and journalists can be so worried about, you know, we don't want to make it about us. But the people don't know you. Most people have never talked to a local journalist. Pew had research last year that showed it was 21 percent of people said they had ever spoken to or been interviewed by a local journalist. And that number goes down if you're not rich, white, educated, and something else. There was another factor. But most people don't have a frame of reference. They've never met one of us, right? So whatever you can do to say, “Here's who we are and what we're all about. And we're not scary. Stop by and ask us a question.” I would really recommend you think about video, especially for the student audience.
ROBBINS: So can I ask a question of the group, which you can either verbally or written respond to, which is what misinformation are you seeing bubbling in your community? You know, what are you most worried about? You tuned into this for a reason. So we're going to use you as lead sources. You know, what are you hearing the most of? Or did you just tune in because people don't like you and you want to figure out a way of getting past that? So what stories are you worrying about and in hearing most of? And while we wait, and I hope somebody actually responds to that question. I'm going to ask a question about another area of misinformation, which is we talked about vaccines, obviously, which is a very hot topic, but the election isn't over with for a lot of people in the country. And how much is the focus of your work, most of your work, dealing with this ongoing claim, utterly false, that, you know, the election was stolen and that the issue isn't over with? And how can people in local communities deal with that because that seems to be, if you look at polling data or the decision to toss Liz Cheney out of leadership in the GOP tomorrow, this is obviously an ongoing—for a certain percentage of population—really an ongoing trauma and one that goes to profoundly to the strength of our democracy. So Daniel, how much of that is still bubbling and how much of that is the focus of the work of your organization?
ACOSTA-RAMOS: Sadly, those claims never ended. I think they were reduced in presence online because many of the groups repeating the big lie repeatedly, repeatedly every single day were either deplatformed or banned or, you know, they had to change their behavior and migrated to darker places on the internet. They're still there; we see it every day. It's constant, but I do believe that, and it's something that we can actually measure the amount of interaction that that is getting, it's absolutely diminished if we compare it to November, December. So I do think there is a lack of interest for the general public towards that, you know, misinformation is not as popular. Let's put it that way. But it's absolutely there and it's worrisome. And one of the things I'm particularly worried about is that the claims that we saw in November, they have basically evolved into something that is completely detached from reality to this point and is often accompanied by other conspiracy theories. It's often accompanied by other anti-Semitic tropes, by anti-LGBTQ propaganda, and some of the stuff. So it stopped being just an election issue and now it's basically like an umbrella of misinformation tendencies that it's really hard to address but it's there. But I do think it's not as popular or it's not as consumable as it was before.
MAYER: Most people aren't news junkies and they have short attention spans, so I'm not surprised to hear Daniel say that. I think that people are kind of moving on and just doing whatever's in front of them today. When asked they probably will still say, and polling does suggest that people still would say, that their belief hasn't changed about the election. But, you know, just like we were talking about with vaccine experts, I think staying local is really important. And, you know, just making sure that it's local journalists we have all of our local elected officials on the record about where they stand on this. I put in the chat today's newsletter for Trusting News is about the public radio station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and their efforts to continue to hold local leaders responsible for their votes and their public comments back in January. But that's, you know, there are people who are never going to believe that that changed it and that the election was fair. At some point you just have to set that aside and keep moving.
ROBBINS: Irina, we had some people who wanted to respond to my question.
FASKIANOS: Yes, the chat is disabled, but you could put it in the Q&A box. Sorry about that. So Rickey Bevington wrote, I live in Georgia where Congresspeople and state leaders spread misinformation relentlessly. Millions of voters believe it. We simply tell people it's false, but they're already convinced. Telling people the truth is not enough. And I know that J.R. Hardman also wanted to. He's AP with PBS Utah in Salt Lake City. So if you want to put in the chat that would be fine. Or you can also email us at [email protected] so we can sort of get a bead on those issues and maybe take them up in future webinars.
MAYER: I would recommend having some boilerplate language that explains why you are so convinced that the election was fair. I think reminding people of the basic facts and asking, you know, if they, you know, if you have sources that have convinced you otherwise. You know, to a point I still am open to hear that, I guess, partly so you can debunk it. But your goal is not to persuade people who have entrenched in a view not based on facts that they're wrong. That's not the goal. The question, of course, is then whether they're using that as a litmus test to see if you're credible in the future. And I guess, I would say that it's worthwhile to engage so that you can understand where they're coming from and know what you're up against and have a chance to explain yourself.
ROBBINS: But that does raise a really pretty fundamental question, which is, if it is a litmus test, you're never going to, I mean, there will be measuring you against it on everything else. And there's no way, I mean, you can't stand in front of a green wall and say it's orange just so that they'll believe you when everything else.
MAYER: No, you definitely can't. There are some people who aren't persuadable, and I think it's an open question. You know, there's some people who think if the Washington Post published it it's probably made up. People who genuinely think they're sitting there inventing information, right? So there are people who are not persuadable. I think the jury's still out how big a group that is, how much this particular issue has influenced that. Again, for me, though, I focus on local, like, what does that mean for how you're covering your community? Are people genuinely afraid that you are going to bring an agenda or a lack of respect for the fact that they believe in to your coverage of the city council, of local schools, of local sports, of local arts? Like, I think the more you can sort of differentiate yourself from that, like for sure hold your state representatives and Congresspeople accountable for that, but that's not what most of us cover, frankly. Most journalists aren't covering the big lie and whether the election was fair and especially not right now. So I would say the more you can distance yourself from that and not make it your job to defend all journalism or defend the credibility of the election. Unless you're tasked with that, I would say it might be more fruitful and a better use of your time to think about what else you could be doing.
ROBBINS: Daniel, last word because we're almost done.
ACOSTA-RAMOS: I will say, and I couldn't agree more with Joy, the communities that we serve, the conversations that we look and it's as easy as, you know, trying to see what is the most popular post on Facebook is usually not about the election. And it's sadly not about the vaccine either. So, I think as journalists we're experts at telling stories and experts, you know, at writing, but we have to get better at listening what our community is saying and what people are actually talking about so we can better serve them.
ROBBINS: Well, I want to say thank you before I turn it over to Irina. This has been an extraordinary conversation, and I want to thank you both also for the work that you're doing. Your websites are fabulous. Your trainings look wonderful. I've signed up for both of your—I'm going to be pen pals with you at least. I'm [inaudible] so thank you so much for what you're doing. And Irina, back to you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Carla. And thank you, Joy and Daniel. We will circulate to all of you the resources that were mentioned and the links. So please use them and share them with your colleagues who were not part of today's conversation. This is meant to be a forum for best practices, and we hope you will take advantage of that. You can follow everybody on Twitter—Carla @robbinscarla, Daniel @dann_acosta, and Joy @mayerjoy. So go there. Please visit CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and events and how they're affecting the U.S. Please share suggestions for future webinars and issues that are of utmost concern to you. You can email us at [email protected]. Thank you all again for today's terrific conversation. We really appreciate it. Stay well, stay safe, and thank you.