Communicating truth in a post-truth world

An address to the Australasian Catholic Press Association annual conference in Auckland 24 August 2017

President Donald Trump may be blamed for many things but you can’t hold him responsible for creating the post-truth environment. It existed, in one form or another, even before Julius Caesar justified the annexation of Gaul by bad-mouthing the neighbouring Germanic tribes. Perhaps it existed even before Pericles, to borrow from the Tony Blair songbook, sexed-up the need for the Peloponnesian Wars.

The world has always been vulnerable to distortion of facts and the utterance of outright lies. What sets this decade apart are factors that have created a perfect storm. A ‘perfect storm’ is created by the convergence of three weather systems and the three elements creating our perfect storm are social polarisation, social disruption, and social media.

There are specific challenges facing journalists in this environment but, first, we need to define what we mean by ‘post-truth’ and, indeed, by ‘truth’ itself. We need to know what we are dealing with.

‘Truth’ has exercised the minds of philosophers since ancient times. St Thomas Aquinas sought to establish the truth of the Christian Faith by proofs and revelation. Others have sought to theorise truth by correspondence: a candidate for truth is true if and only if it corresponds to a fact. Or there is a coherence  between one fact and another that provides a unified truth. Bertrand Russell cites multiplication tables as the perfect model of truth – “precise and certain and free from all temporal dross”.  Russell also talks of ‘scientific truthfulness’ that bases beliefs on observations and inferences that have been shorn of bias.

Journalists, unfortunately, do not enjoy the luxury of timescales that expand to the limit of scientific enquiry or philosophical rumination. Nor do they always deal in the finite certainties of multiplication tables. They exist in a world where opinion and fact become inter-twined, where the establishment of fact does battle with forces bent on denying it, and where their own professional frailties adversely impact their ability to be believed.

They – and society at large – have not been helped by the postmodernist notion, still fashionable in some quarters, that ‘there is no such thing as truth – only truths’. In other words, each of us is entitled to qualify our perception of ‘truth’ with our own cultural and personal perspectives – truth is what I perceive it to be. The American philosopher Daniel Dennett, in an interview in the Guardian earlier this year said that what the postmodernists did was “truly evil”. “They are responsible,” he said, “for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”.

We can, however, settle on a journalistic, if not philosophical definition. I’ll offer this one which, no doubt, can be endlessly debated. However, I will ask you to accept it for present purposes: Truth is the discounting of misinformation and self-interested bias, and the assembly of verified facts into a fair and reliable account. I think we all know that it comes with a caveat: available time may mean that it is subject to revision.

Before we can navigate in pursuit of that goal we also need to define the other aspect I’ve been asked to address: ‘post-truth’. As already noted, the concept isn’t new. In a political sense, the word itself has been around for more than a decade. It was used in the title of a book in 2004 and in articles the same year on the Bush Administration’s falsifications that led to the Gulf War. And the following year the comedian Stephen Colbert provided us with the companion word: ‘truthiness’. In each case, they referred to the way in which debate was conditioned by appeals to emotions and beliefs with little or no regard for objective fact or, indeed, rational thought. In a post-truth world, as Stephen Colbert said, ‘facts’ are not only what I feel to be true but what I feel to be true. So, it’s not only emotional, it’s selfish.

Let’s settle for the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of its 2016 word of the year: Post-truth — ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

These are the definitions we’ll work with. This is the environment that allows patent untruths to flourish: The U.S. presidential campaign’s story that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, the Brexit campaign’s £350 million-a-week payments by Britain to the EU, and the French election’s secret offshore accounts held by Emmanuel Macron. Why? Because a people wanted to believe they were true.

Members of the Australasian Catholic Press Association are in a special position. There is a faith base to their publications, websites and communication and a common bond of understanding between them and their audiences. To draw on Thomas Aquinas again: While they deal in the truths of reason, they also accept the truths of revelation. They are, nonetheless, journalists and professional communicators – professionals who share a common understanding of the norms and values that guide their profession across the media spectrum.

They may adhere to policies and beliefs that determine the manner in which they communicate with their audiences – and that is no different to someone working for News Limited, Fairfax or Bauer – but that does not alter their fundamental obligation to the truth. It has never been an easy undertaking. The pursuit of truth has always involved hard work. However, the task is harder in a post-truth environment.

I want to use two case studies — one political and the other not — to illustrate the challenges and, I hope, the solution.

\The first case study is not one of the many examples of fake news we have seen in the past 18 months. However, it is a perfect illustration of how journalistic norms can be subverted when we are blinded by wanting something to be true. It involves a harrowing subject – rape – and a magazine that focuses on popular culture. The magazine is Rolling Stone and the rape case involved one of America’s Ivy League institutions, the University of Virginia. These are the facts:

•       In July 2014 Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely began investigating the issue of college rape – which had been an issue of rising concern in the U.S.

•       A staff member of the University of Virginia put her in touch with ‘Jackie’ who had told her she had been the victim of gang rape.

•       According to ‘Jackie’, an unnamed pool lifeguard invited her to a fraternity house party where she was taken into a room, beaten and raped by seven students. She gave precise and horrifying details of her ordeal.

•       Erdely was convinced that ‘Jackie’s’ account was reliable.

•       University authorities were asked for comment on the incidence and handling of sexual assault on campus but were not given details of the specific case. The university was portrayed as neglectful.

•       Editors and a fact-checker at Rolling Stone pointed to gaps in the story draft but were satisfied with ‘Jackie’s’ explanations.

•       The story, which identified the fraternity house Phi Kappa Psi but maintained “Jackie’s” anonymity, ran in the 19 November 2014 issue of Rolling Stone and caused a sensation.

•       A week after publication doubts began to surface and other outlets questioned “Jackie’s” story.

•       On Dec. 5, the magazine published an online editor’s note effectively retracting the story.

•       A four month police investigation failed to substantiate the rape claim. “Jackie” may have been the victim of a sexual assault but not on that night and not in that fraternity house.

An investigation by Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism revealed serious reporting and editing shortcomings by the magazine. This is what it found:

•       Rolling Stone had relied on a single source.

•       Had deferred to the ‘rape victim’.

•       Avoided independent verification rather than risk ‘victim’s’ cooperation.

•       Failed to seek responses from students subject to ‘Jackie’s’ derogatory remarks.

•       Failed to make basic checks on events/people.

•       Did not put full details to university for comment and investigation.

•       Failed to properly attribute statements in story.

•       Had used pseudonyms as a crutch.

•       Did not pay sufficient regard to issues raised in fact-checking.

In other words, Erdely wanted to believe the ‘rape victim’s’ story and what followed was conditioned by that original premise. Doubtless “Jackie” also had wanted it to be true and, in her mind, it probably became truth.

The second case study occurred following the US presidential election. A so-called dossier surfaced, purporting to contain ‘evidence’ that Donald Trump had direct dealings with the Kremlin, which had compromising evidence that he had indulged in what can only be described as sex orgies while in Moscow. The dossier had apparently been compiled by a former British intelligence officer.

The Buzzfeed news website carried reports based on the dossier, noting that the claims made in it were “unverified” and “contained errors”. It also posted a PDF file of the 35-page dossier itself.

The reaction was predictable but by no means entirely critical of the dossier or its British author. There were strong denials from the Trump camp, the Kremlin and many other sources that stated the dossier was ‘rubbish’ but former colleagues of the agent attested to his professionalism. Trump supporters decried it while his detractors either believed it or surmised “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.  However, in journalism circles there was wide condemnation of Buzzfeed for publishing the material without establishing its veracity.

The website’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith had anticipated the fallout and published a memo on the site. In it he said: “Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing. In this case, the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media… BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds [my emphasis] about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”

Such sentiments only served to enflame matters. It annoyed me when I sat it alongside an earlier quotation, that I had shared with my students, from a well-respected Canadian journalist named Craig Silverman: “News organizations must recognize the value of being smart filters in a world of abundant, dubious, questionable information.” Silverman happens to be the media editor of Buzzfeed but he had nothing to do with the publication of the dossier.

In both of these cases a single word provides a clue to the problem and its solution: verification.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in The Elements of Journalism, state that “[Journalism’s] essence is a discipline of verification. Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information. While there is no standardized code as such, every journalist uses certain methods to assess and test information to “get it right.” They go on to say “This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other forms of communication such as propaganda, advertising, fiction, or entertainment.”

They’re not prescriptive over how verification is achieved but they offer a basic check-list:

•       Edit sceptically

•       Apply accuracy checklists.

•       Assume nothing

•       Double-check the story

•       Apply extra scrutiny to anonymous sources.

That fits well with what the Columbia School of Journalism recommended to Rolling Stone:

•       Confront subjects with details

•       Use pseudonyms sparingly and only when absolutely necessary

•       Check derogatory information with subjects

•       Balance sensitivity to victims with need for verification

•       Corroborate survivor accounts

•       Understand rules and regulations

Corroboration – getting the same information from independent sources – is a fundamental of verification. On contentious stories the New York Times requires what it terms ‘triangulation’ – three independent sources saying the same thing. I like triangles. They call to mind Bertrand Russell’s “precise and certain and free from all temporal dross”.

Verification should not be selective. It should be a universal attribute, even when dealing with ‘facts’ provided by official sources. The Russians have a saying that was adopted by Ronald Reagan during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT): Trust, but verify.

Sometimes the boundaries of verification will be reached and editorial staff remain uncertain. If they feel compelled, nevertheless, to share information that has not passed all of the litmus tests, they must be honest with their audience. They must be transparent and tell the audience the efforts they have made to test information and why they have been unable to fully verify it. Then the audience is equipped to determine how much weight it should put on the information. The Guardian has a useful guide for its journalists. It tells its staff: “We must be tenacious is seeking reliable corroboration and should state the level of substantiation we have been able to achieve”.

The need to apply these tests is all the more important in the digital age when, not only is everyone a publisher, but the creation of social media filter bubbles provides fertile ground for post-truth truthiness or fake news.

I need to be careful when I use the phrase ‘fake news’. It is not a single phenomenon. It can be any one of the following:

•       A falsehood deliberately distributed to undermine a person or an institution – The £350 million-a-week EU bill.

•       A falsehood distributed for financial gain (click-based advertising on social media) – The Papal endorsement of Trump.

•       Parody and satire shared on social media as ‘fact’

•       Bad journalism – running unsubstantiated rumours – The Buzzfeed ‘dossier’

•       News that we want to be false (even if it’s true) because it is inconvenient or ideologically unpalatable — President Trump’s labelling of the New York Times and CNN as ‘fake news media’

Invariably, the initial vehicle for such fake news is social media. Journalists may find themselves tempted to pick up stories from social media. My advice:

•       Do not cut-and-paste.

•       Treat them as no more than a possible source and then apply verification tests.

•       Don’t rely on instinct.

To illustrate the latter point consider these three stories that appeared on news websites. All three stories all have similar themes and purport to be the utterances of fundamentalist preachers.:

  • Orlando shootings are ‘God’s punishment’ for same sex marriage, claims US TV evangelist Pat Robertson
  • Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki blames earthquake on gays
  • West Auckland pastor preaches gay people should be shot

The first is pure fabrication by a clearly sign-posted satirical website that had been read and accepted as fact by someone who wanted it to be true. So, they posted it on social media as ‘fact’ and that version was picked up by mainstream media. The other two stories are actual news reports.

The filter bubbles of social media – ‘friends’ on Facebook, ‘followers’ on Twitter and so-on – helps like-minded people to congregate. What better place to propagate falsehoods when ‘truth’ is what we want to believe is true? It was the proliferation through such thought silos that led to Pizzagate – the spurious tale of a paedophile ring for Democrats run out of a Washington Pizza Parlour – being believed by large numbers of Trump supporters (and by one man who presented a gun in the pizza parlour). The paedophile ring story had been carried on Buzzfeed. The papal endorsement of Trump was a click-bait driven piece of fake news that spread like wildfire but which, for reasons that will be obvious to rational people, was not as widely believed. It did, however, make quite a lot of money for its Romanian creator.

There is a simple rule of thumb about material on social media: If you can’t independently verify it, don’t use it. Apart from anything else, be mindful of the fact that social media is rife with forms of identity theft. How do you know that the tweeter or Facebook poster is who they claim to be? And don’t rely on preconceptions when deciding on content. If I show an audience a series of pictures – a grandmother, a teenager girl with acne, a housewife, a glamorous blonde, a nurse and a mother with baby – and asked to identify which of them was a serial killer, the audience will begin selecting one or another based on initial impressions and presumptions of ‘innocence’. Their jaws drop when they are told that, in fact, all the women are convicted killers.

Nor should journalists take credentials for granted. A press release that claimed chocolate could help lose weight made headlines around the world. The stories cited a study by The Institute of Diet and Health, involving German dieters, that had been published in the journal International Archives of Medicine. The problem was the institute doesn’t exist, and only 15 dieters were said to have been studied, making the results statistically insignificant in any event. It was all part of an elaborate ruse by journalist and scientist John Bahannon to prove how quickly and easily misinformation can spread – and to encourage the media to be more responsible when it comes to covering science and health stories.

A specialist branch of the media such as Catholic publications may enjoy a higher level of audience trust than mainstream media, where it is at an all-time low. However, even specialist media should not think that none of the distrust rubs off on them. The public’s general perception of journalists is poor all professional journalists, must strive to be believed.

Trust is a pre-requisite to the media acting as a filter of falsehoods and a provider of facts. They achieve those aims only if they are believed. Unfortunately, fewer people believe the media than was the case on the past. A survey in May showed that the number of people with some or a lot of trust in Australian daily newspapers had dropped by 20 percentage points – from 62% to 42% since 2011. A study by Victoria University of Wellington last year found that 45% of New Zealand survey respondents felt their trust in television and print media had declined in the past three years. Those statistics are alarming…and have to change.

As I said, the pursuit of truth is a recipe for hard work but there are some aids that will lighten the load. There are, for example, a growing number of tools and websites that journalists can use for verification of online content. Services like Storyful, which does fact checking for international customers including Reuters and the New York Times, and Fact Check on snopes.com, which matches material with known rumours and hoaxes. Tin Eye reverse searches images on the web to determine whether a picture is what it purports to be. There are now over 100 fact-checking initiatives in 47 countries but choose services carefully. There are also fake ‘fact-checking’ sites whose purpose is, in reality, to reinforce fake news reports. This should reinforce the value of double checking and triangulation!

There is a growing number of guides and check lists that will walk you through the post-truth maze – for example, the Verification Handbook produced by the European Journalism Centre.  Edited by Craig Silverman, who I mentioned earlier, it is designed to assist journalists in emergency coverage and investigative reporting by providing a wealth of guidance for how to verify user-generated content. The International Fact-Checking Network headquartered in the Poynter Institute in Florida provides good guidance on the status of fact-checking services as does the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Project. Both provide online courses.

Even the Australasian Catholic Press Association cannot take comfort in thinking that fake news and post-truth attitudes only happen to other sectors of the media and to other journalists. It is by no means immune to it.

It can, for example, expect the Melbourne trial of Cardinal Pell [on historical sex abuse charges] to be the catalyst for an upsurge in unsubstantiated claims – some malicious, some designed as click-bait – that begin their life on social media but then take on a life of their own. Who is to say how such claims will germinate in a post-truth environment? The role of specialist media may be to disprove a false claim – to ‘out’ it as fake news. The processes of verification are designed to seek the truth: They can be as effective in disproving as in proving.

Journalists must also beware of possible blind spots. They must not limit their vigilance to in-house news content. Opinion writers include ‘facts’ in their commentaries as the basis of those opinions. Such ‘facts’ should not be taken at face value if the journalist handling the copy has no direct knowledge of their veracity. They may need to be subjected to fact-checking. The same applies to contributed content.

And vigilance must not be limited to words: Pictures and video may not be what they seem. I am not suggesting that the world is full of malevolent creatures whose sole aim in life is to lie and to blight the lives of journalists. However, one should never discount the ability of people to simply make mistakes or ‘get the wrong end of the stick’. It is all too easy for them to download an image from Google (we’ll leave aside the copyright issues) to illustrate content. Production journalists should not assume that the description of the image is accurate.

Nor should journalists assume they will be protected by the claims by Google and Facebook that they are moving to filter out fake news. It may be too little, too late. At the end of the day, it is the journalist who carries the responsibility to pursue the truth.

If I was an editor today, I could see myself lying awake all night, staring at the darkened ceiling, my forehead pricked with cold sweat. I would be worried by a number of things that can interfere with that pursuit of truth:

·      Social media being treated as legitimate primary sources

·      Twitter and Snapchat as journalistic publishing platforms

·      The removal of checks and balances between reporter and publication

·      Decision-making in the hands of junior digital editors

·      The rush to publish

·      Clickbait analytics pushing professional and ethical boundaries.

I don’t doubt that the financial decline in mainstream media lies behind many of these worrisome factors. However, my strongest advice is to ensure there is real-time oversight to ensure that in the fight to survive in a digital world, we don’t lose sight of the values and practices that have defined journalism and its pursuit of truth in the public interest.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism” defined their vision of journalism: A journalism of sense-making based on synthesis, verification and fierce independence, a journalism that is a collaborative organised intelligence that combines the network, the community, and the unique skills of trained journalists.

Those are the attributes that will see journalists communicating truth in a post-truth environment.

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