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Stanford playbook outlines how journalists can avoid spreading disinformation

Janine Zacharia is leading initiatives to help tackle false information as it becomes more prevalent, sophisticated and threatening for American newsrooms.
Screenshot. of a Stanford report on the Newsroom playbook

Just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, former Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron issued a newsroom-wide email warning Post journalists to be careful in vetting leaked information and of mistakenly echoing propaganda. 

“Our ongoing coverage should help readers understand how political lines of attack fit into disinformation operations,” Baron wrote in the memo.

The top editor ended his note linking to “10 guidelines on how newsrooms can report responsibly on hacks and disinformation” — a resource created at Stanford by Carlos Kelly McClatchy Lecturer Janine Zacharia and Director of the Program on Geopolitics, Technology, and Governance Andrew Grotto. Their playbook was designed to help journalists navigate reporting on false, misleading and hacked information, in order to avoid accidentally boosting domestic or foreign propaganda.

Zacharia, a seasoned international correspondent who teaches journalism courses, is leading a charge at Stanford to tackle misinformation and disinformation in the American media landscape. Just before the coronavirus pandemic, Zacharia took the playbook to leaders at major newsrooms to help them avoid amplifying dangerous information and to better understand why disinformation was being spread.

“It’s gotten a lot harder to be a reporter now in 2022,” said Zacharia, who has had stints as Jerusalem Bureau Chief for The Washington Post, State Department Correspondent for Bloomberg News, Washington Bureau Chief for the Jerusalem Post and Jerusalem Correspondent for Reuters. “I think there’s a heightened sensitivity to [misinformation and disinformation] … People understand just how big a part of the landscape this is now.”

A recent PEN America survey found that while 81 percent of journalists polled said disinformation is a very serious problem today, only 30 percent of them said their news organization had effective processes ready to cope with that disinformation. Some newsrooms are devoting dedicated resources to this issue: In July, NPR said it was launching a disinformation reporting team.

Zacharia’s and Grotto’s free guide encourages newsrooms to trace the origins of viral content, recognize efforts that try to divert attention away from a newsworthy event and assign a reporter to cover disinformation as a beat, among other recommendations.

“The goal, oftentimes, of the originator is to try to break through and get a story or an idea out into the broader zeitgeist, as opposed to just sort of the information bubble that many of these people and organizations created themselves,” Grotto said. “Newsrooms, in general, have gotten much more sophisticated about how they deal with this problem.”

The step-by-step playbook’s awareness has extended past newsrooms, including to organizations like The Aspen Institute, Alliance of Democracies, Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) and Lawfare.

Stanford is uniquely situated to help tackle disinformation because campus researchers are exploring how markets, regulations and politics combine to produce misinformation, according to Jay Hamilton, Hearst Professor of Communication and Stanford Journalism Program Director.

Matthew Gentzkow studies the economics of fake news, Jeff Hancock uses the tools of media psychology to study trust and deception in social media, Alex Stamos and Renee Di Resta at the Internet Observatory analyze how information spreads across platforms and Nathaniel Persily analyzes the legal frameworks governing the Internet,” Hamilton said.

With sophisticated digital duping happening across the world, Zacharia hopes to continue exploring how newsrooms can develop stronger, more responsible social media guidelines.

“There is such a cacophony right now of the way journalists use social media and part of the way they amplify or are vulnerable to disinformation,” Zacharia said. “You don’t put the same time and thought into retweeting and tweeting in general that you do into a reported story that goes through an editor.”

“Editors and reporters don’t need a lecture,” said R.B. Brenner, managing director of the Stanford Journalism and Democracy Initiative. “What they do need, and what Zacharia and Grotto have provided, is clear and logical guidance to help them strategize when confronted with information from sources that are dubious -- or worse. Their playbook, if followed, will help ensure that the coverage doesn’t just win a day’s news cycle but withstands the test of time.”

As social media platforms have become the unintentional host to so much disinformation in recent years, major tech titans have tried to address the problems with a patchwork of policies. Just as many of the problems were created in Silicon Valley, Zacharia hopes robust solutions can also emerge from the region.

“Taking those lessons from what we teach here — in terms of doing the best reporting possible, using data to surface the best and most important stories and making those available to the public in a way that they can consume — are things that can be applied in all of these companies,” Zacharia added.

That’s a similar goal former President Barack Obama has shared with the Stanford community. In a spring 2022 speech on campus, the 44th U.S. president stressed the importance for technology companies and citizens to step up to combat digital authoritarians. “Solving the disinformation problem won’t cure all that ails our democracies or tears at the fabric of our world, but it can help tamp down divisions and let us rebuild the trust and solidarity needed to make our democracy stronger,” Obama said. “Autocrats like [Vladimir] Putin have used these platforms as a strategic weapon against democratic countries that they consider a threat.”

Now, as the United States nears a pivotal midterm election in November, Zacharia and Grotto hope the playbook can continue to be helpful.

Grotto, who previously was senior director for cybersecurity policy at the White House for both the Obama and Trump administrations, believes that attacks against journalists that originate on social media can “try to undermine the credibility of not just that reporter, but perhaps their news outlet and fact-based news generally.”

Zacharia also believes the public’s trust in credible, fact-based news must be restored, especially after political efforts to discredit reputable journalism as “fake news.”

“I would like to think about ways that we can educate the public more effectively in terms of knowing what they’re looking at, knowing what they’re seeing on social media, knowing what’s credible and what’s not, and how to be more alert about falsehoods,” Zacharia said.

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