‘How we know what we report’

Pictured is a collage of fact-checking articles that have run in the Black Hills Pioneer over the past year. Pioneer photo

SPEARFISH — Newspapers: we ask the public to put their trust in us everyday as a reliable, trustworthy source for accurate news, but how can you, the reader, be sure we’re living up to that trust?

There isn’t a news source in the country that can claim to get it all right all of the time, but as one of the longest running sources for news, the Associated Press (AP) has developed a model to keep us all accountable.

“Basically every reporter, photography, producer at the AP is fact checking their own material as they go and then that material goes through a series of editors before it reaches publication,” explained Karen Mahabir, fact checker and misinformation editor for the AP. “We have a team that operates across the United States and we have fact checkers in Mexico City and they’re basically looking for claims to debunk, largely online.”

Separating fact from fiction

Mahabir and her team look for claims that either need to be clarified or refuted because they could have an impact on the way people live and communicate. Whether those claims come from world leaders, local legislators, or heads of major companies.

“We kind of start the day with, ‘what are the big stories of the day and what are the sort of narratives that we see around that story,’” she said.

The AP fact checkers monitor speeches, press releases, social media, and anywhere the public is sending and receiving information, in order to track the facts that are being spread.

“We’re really trying to find something that is breaking into the mainstream and that we feel needs to be addressed because it could harm someone,” she explained. “Our goal, really, is to focus on the claims that are getting the most attention.”

Mahabir said it could be a delicate balance between bringing false or inaccurate claims to public attention and contributing to the spread of misinformation.

“All we can do is point to the accurate information and call out mistruths when we see them. And I think we have to be really responsible how we do that,” she said. “We want to be really careful not to give more oxygen than is needed to certain claims.”

There are varying degrees of false information. One of the functions journalists are tasked with is to determine when a false claim has been made, then using fact-checking techniques, discern to what degree that information needs to be investigated.

“I think that there is a huge difference between misinformation and disinformation and I think the difference there is intention,” Mahabir said. “With misinformation I think a lot of people might share something unwittingly, and you never want to make anyone feel bad for falling for false news.”

If they say it, is it news?

The job of a journalist is to report on what public figures are saying and doing, Mahabir explained that fact checking has emerged as a way to proactively make sure those statements and actions are truthful in real time to stop a false claim from spreading into dangerous misinformation.

“(With fact checking) our goal is if someone says something that is false and we’re reporting it, we want to be able to tell the facts around that statement before you get to the end of the sentence or the end of the paragraph,” she said. “So we’re debunking as we go.”

Misinformation reporting takes a closer look at a claim that has already made it into the main stream of information to provide a greater context for the reader to understand why the claim should be refuted.

“Where did this claim come from, why is it out there, who might be behind it, how does it fit into a larger narrative, how does it fit into a larger campaign like a disinformation campaign,” Mohair added. “We try to be as responsible as we can with misinformation stories.”

While fact checking has been a part of reporting since the beginning of the practice, Mahabir said the AP started showing their work in the early 1990s as the internet started bringing more and more information directly to the public from multiple sources.

“As more information was traveling online we started seeing more things we needed to debunk,” she said. “The news industry is more fragmented. Back in the day you had news coming from primary sources … and there’s so much out there now, there’s so many more news outlets, we have the online news outlets, and I think it can be very tricky for people to kind of discern what is real.”

Fact checkers always start with primary sources to track down the truth in a claim, often times they start with the reporters themselves.

“Sometimes it could be that they have their hands on material like statistics or data where they can help us beat down the claim or refute something,” Mahabir said. “Sometimes they bore witness to an event, they were there on the ground and they can tell us accurately what’s happening.”

For folks at home, looking to discern for themselves what’s true in the news, Mahabir recommends diving into the source and exploring a diverse set of data.

“Really assess the source of the content. Does it look legitimate, if it claims to be from a news site can you look at the ‘about page,’ is there something you can learn about the site’s purpose? Look at other sources, see how other media are covering this and if they’re not why is that,” she said. “I’m really hoping that when people read our stories they’re learning something about the problem of misinformation that will help them in detecting false news as it pops up in their own feeds.”

Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong

As prominent public figures push back and fight against the fact checking efforts of legitimate news outlets by spouting false claims of corruption and agendas, Mahabir said fact checking itself has become a headline.

The AP launched a stand-alone “Fact Check” section on its website dedicated to telling the story behind the sound byte of debunking widely shared social media falsities.

“It must have been four or five years ago that we started hiring more people to do this sort of work,” she said. “Because misinformation just started to become this big problem and I think it’s now the story.”

As distrust of the media seems to be a prevalent fixture on the information landscape, Mahabir said she and her team is very mindful of how they dispel false information. In particular, she pointed to a series of “explainer articles” similar to the “Ask a Doctor” pieces run in the Pioneer, where readers could write in questions for medical experts about the coronavirus, and have them answered directly by doctors.

“For me it was more like, let’s hold people’s hands through this and not just make them feel bad for having fallen for misinformation,” she said.

Mahabir said presenting facts to those who have been bamboozled by false information requires empathy to be effective.

“I think it’s been especially important as we have confronted just waves of misinformation around the coronavirus and around the U.S. election, not to mention across the world. And I think that journalists and, particularly fact checkers and misinformation reports really have been working at 150% for a long time to cut through the fog of misinformation and to find ways to deliver accurate information to the people where ever they are in the world and where ever they are in their lives,” she said. “I don’t think that the problem of misinformation is going to go away anytime soon so I think that we need to kind of just keep pushing on and pushing ahead with good, fact-based journalism that holds people to account and is also transparent about how we know what we report.”

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