Journalist Howard Hardee of First Draft news and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism developed the toolkit with the goal in mind of assisting journalists and journalism students in thinking critically about the information they see all around them. Hardee was nice enough to agree to an interview for the blog, the first part of which is below in a Q and A format :
In researching a bit about you, it seems like you’ve had both a variety of experiences and a focus on the deep-dive work that goes to the heart of informative journalism. Could you give me kind of a mini-bio of your “greatest hits” in terms of your school and work history?
“I gravitated toward journalism in my teen years, with lots of encouragement from my parents and teachers. Writing essays was my saving grace in college. I wasn’t a very serious student until my senior year at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where a couple of professors showed me the importance of investigative work and the power of good storytelling.
“I graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and got an entry-level job at an alt-weekly newspaper called the Chico News & Review in Northern California. I spent about six years honing my writing and reporting chops by focusing on news features. I mostly covered the city council, poverty, and environmental issues, with some arts and culture coverage mixed in.
“My career took a turn in 2017, when I landed a fellowship with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta. I spent a couple of weeks working with a cohort of world-class environmental writers (including Naomi Klein), focusing on a reported piece about forest health and wildfires in Northern California. That story ended up running in a few different alt-weeklies in California and Nevada, and opened my eyes to the wide world of publishing.
“The following year, I became a full-time freelancer, working on news and music features for about a dozen different alt-weeklies all across the country. It was a difficult time in terms of earning a living — I really had to hustle — but it was great for learning how to pitch stories to new publications, working with a variety of editors, and just getting my byline out there. During this period, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and started working regularly for Isthmus, the local weekly.
“That gig led me to write a profile of Dee and Andy Hall with Wisconsin Watch, which put me on their radar as a local freelancer. I had been actively seeking more high-level mentorship, and was delighted when Dee approached me about applying for a fellowship with First Draft.
“Being part of the five-state fellowship has been an incredible experience. It really feels like a grad program with an all-star cohort. I’ve taken a deep dive on mis- and disinformation in an absolutely critical election year, allowing me to produce important public service journalism and progress in my career. In July, we landed Craig Newmark funding to launch the Election Integrity Project, a collaboration with First Draft and the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison.”
You have reported in two areas in which a lot of disinformation tends to propagate: politics and environmental policy. Were there any particular experiences you had in those areas that galvanized your efforts here with the misinformation toolkit? Did you find yourself dealing with people or situations that had you thinking, “We are living in alternate realities here…” and push you toward the work you do with Wisconsin Watch and First Draft News?
“I wouldn’t point to any specific experience that got me on this path. But I’d say there’s a pretty clear line from my interest in environmental reportage and my current work on elections. Both subjects are so vitally important to the health and functioning of our society, and both have become so polarized by people with ideological and political motives. I’ve felt the same sense of urgency while writing both about climate change and disinformation on social media, and that it’s important to join others in sticking up for the truth.
“I’d rather not spend so much time monitoring social media. It’s dirty work. These platforms are truly toxic places, and I believe they are tearing our social fabric and doing terrible harm to our democracy. But as a reporter who is dedicated to accuracy and truth-telling, I can’t ignore fountains of falsehood in my own backyard. It’s my job to go there and report back.”
Could you give me a walk-through on how you came up with the ideas you included in your toolkit and why they have value to journalists, particularly student journalists who are just starting out in the field? Many of these students have grown up in the age of partisan reporting, living in media bubbles and deepfakes. What does your toolkit give these folks in terms of doing the job right?
“Putting together this toolkit felt like a capstone project that incorporates everything I’ve learned this year. Most of the concepts discussed in the toolkit are things I’ve picked up through ongoing training and discussions with the First Draft fellowship, and through my social media monitoring and reporting efforts. I’ve had to grapple with a lot of these questions myself, especially when the timing is right for a reported piece, so that definitely informed the advice I offer in the toolkit. Interviews with several experts on misinformation and visual examples from my monitoring work kind of rounded out the piece.
“I think the most important takeaway for young reporters is getting into habits of mind like measuring the ‘tipping point’ and weighing the harm disinformation campaigns could inflict on vulnerable communities. Somebody lying on Twitter is not newsworthy; it happens all the time, and you don’t want to call more attention to misinformation by writing about it prematurely. You have to demonstrate that the falsehood has the potential to reach a wide audience and do real-world damage before you even think about reporting on it. Until you reach that point, it’s better to watch and wait — and take plenty of screenshots.
“For example, while I was reporting this piece about a conservative think-tank misrepresenting COVID-19 case and fatality statistics in Wisconsin, I waited until the message was getting amplified by an influencer with a wide audience (in this case, radio talk show host Vicki McKenna). That was the tipping point where I felt the benefits of a reported story outweighed the risk of potentially amplifying the false narrative.”
Do you ever get frustrated with people or society at large when you find yourself having to push back against disinformation again and again and again? I can’t imagine having the patience necessary to constantly tell people who are SO CERTAIN that Obama was born in Kenya or that a shark was swimming on the freeway during a flood that, well, no, that’s not right. What keeps you going at a time in media history where reality seems outgunned and understaffed?
“I know that my stories will be routed into deeply partisan channels on social media, and probably won’t reach the audiences that most need to read them. Even if they do, they’ll be dismissed as “fake news” in some circles — even though Wisconsin Watch’s editorial team meticulously fact-checks each story. I’ve watched it happen in real time, and it can be incredibly discouraging. So, you have to accept that you won’t get through to some people with a high level of conspiracy ideation. Some people can’t be convinced, no matter what you write.
“When I first started monitoring what people were saying on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram in Wisconsin, I found the scale of the problem really daunting. There’s just no way an individual journalist or newsroom can counter all of the falsehoods they see online. In my opinion, this is such an existential problem for journalism, our electoral system, and the general public’s perception of reality that lawmakers absolutely must step in with some form of regulation. I’m not sure what that would look like, but these platforms can’t be allowed to wreak such havoc on our society.
“Part of what keeps me going is believing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I also continually remind myself that social media is not the real world. The loudmouths on Twitter aren’t representative of the public at large. And I take heart that so many smart and fair-minded people are still fighting for the Enlightenment ideals of science, knowledge and truth.
“Not to mention, I’m in an incredible position to make a difference in a critical swing state. Wisconsin Watch has an audience of millions — far greater than the typical social media influencer. Keeping that in perspective helps me remember that my work can have a big impact.”