Leveraging the power of fact checking

By David Kassnoff

This week brought news of mandatory furloughs of a week or more at many daily newspapers. This translates to fewer editors, reporters, news photographers, and content coaches. It’s easy to blame the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout for curtailing the important work of these newspaper employees, however intermittently.

But the loss of fact-checkers and proofreaders pre-dates today’s shortage of advertising dollars. And profit-strapped newspaper owners aren’t solely responsible. As a society, we’ve set aside our willingness to accept inaccuracies while we drink from the firehose of “content.” Regardless of whether the content is factual or false.

And it’s not limited to the newsgathering industry. We all must shoulder some of the blame.

This week, a well-admired retired journalist posted to Facebook an authoritative-sounding account of how the coronavirus behaves, and how enthusiastic handwashing and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers help combat the virus. The long-ish post purportedly came from Johns Hopkins University and its a highly respected medical college. It rang true.

Except it wasn’t from Johns Hopkins University. A quick detour to the fact-checking website Snopes.com determined this. When he learned of this, the former newsman who’d posted the coronavirus story removed it from Facebook. And was highly annoyed at having been misled.

No news editor or content coach is at fault here. We’re all dashing to find the best ways to prevent coronavirus from touching our loved ones, friends, and colleagues. And we’re too busy re-wiring our lives from the routine to an HTML world to detour to a fact-checking website, however briefly.

This opens the door to a faux Johns Hopkins report. Or absurd claims of quasi-miracle colloidal silver potions hawked by well-known hucksters Jim Baker or Alex Jones. Or any other bogus accounts that prey on our need to shield ourselves from a menacing virus.

Fact-checking is no longer something we can leave to content editors at newspapers and news websites. They’re no longer sufficiently staffed, and won’t be unless advertisers return to market their products via these media. It’s up to us to verify a story before we re-post. We need to make this an everyday part of our digital lives, as much as Skype or Zoom or Twitter or TikTok.

One bright spot: Google agrees, and this week donated $6.5 million to help fund organizations combat the rampant spread of misinformation regarding coronavirus. But this doesn’t absolve us of a responsibility to verify the stories that flood our devices.

Barbara Gray, associate professor and chief librarian at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, asks us to “Create your own habit of fact checking — it’s a civic survival skill and duty in a post-truth world.” [Search for Dr. Gray’s free downloadable PDF, “How to Fact Check Like a Pro.”]

In our digital world, we must rely on ourselves to determine the authenticity of the content that dances across our screens. In a world scarred by COVID-19, it’s a personal responsibility, akin to washing our hands.

A former journalist and corporate communications executive, David Kassnoff today writes and lectures in St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Communication, He earned both his B.A. and M.A. degrees from St. Bonaventure.  He has created an award-winning online eMagazine, authored four books, and his photography has earned awards from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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