A toolkit for journalists to fight misinformation and disinformation during the election season and an interview with the person who built it (Part II)

As we discussed on Tuesday, to help journalists and citizens alike, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Center for Journalism Ethics are working on a nonpartisan collaboration to support election integrity.

The organizations are also hosting a free webinar based on this resource featuring  Howard Hardee of First Draft News and the WCIJ as well as Kathleen Bartzen Culver of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Information and registration for that event are available here.

Howard Hardee is the election integrity reporter at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and a local fellow with the international journalism nonprofit First Draft News. He most recently was a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal. He has written extensively about government, natural disasters and forest health in Northern California, and was a 2017 Environmental Reportage fellow at the Centre for Arts and Creativity in Banff, Alberta.

Hardee, who built a toolkit to help fight disinformation and misinformation during the election season, was nice enough to do an email interview for the  blog, the first part of which we ran yesterday. Here’s the second part of the interview:

I recently read a piece on Poynter that argues we should not be teaching objectivity to students, but rather focus their efforts on their experiences and “truth-telling.” I know several folks who think this approach has value, especially in the disinformation age where getting Side A and Side B isn’t really fair to reality. I also know teachers and professors who believe that if we give up on objectivity, all we really have are talking heads with their own viewpoints screaming at each other. I would really like to know where you come down on this issue, particularly given your work on disinformation.

“I think there’s still value in practicing objectivity. I get the argument that the only real ‘truth’ is from first-hand experience, but part of the problem with the social media sphere is that it’s full of people who can’t see outside of their own perspectives, and surround themselves with voices and content that reinforces those perspectives. Recognizing that it’s impossible to be totally unbiased and removed from a story you’re writing, young reporters should work on developing the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. It’s not easy or automatic, and only comes from sitting down with people from all walks of life and listening to their stories.

“Objectivity doesn’t mean presenting ‘both sides’ as if they’re equal. That’s a classic young reporter’s mistake: You get a quote from a climate scientist, so you think you need a quote from a climate skeptic to ‘balance’ out your story. That’s nonsense. A reporter’s highest purpose is telling the truth. Don’t provide a platform for falsehoods in some misguided attempt to be fair to all the interested parties. Get as close to the truth as you possibly can, and back up your findings with accurate documents and expert sources.”


Based on your experiences, what are the key things you think I should be teaching my students going forward. Is there a list of things that this next generation of journalists should have as tools in their toolbox that will make them successful?

“I believe that the training I’ve received through First Draft will benefit my reporting career in the future regardless of whether my future positions involve tracking misinformation. Digital tools like Tweetdeck (for monitoring Twitter) and CrowdTangle (for monitoring Facebook and Reddit) are excellent ways to keep tabs on conversations and public figures related to your beat. Everybody (not just reporters) should know how to run a reverse-image search with a tool like TinEye; it’s probably the fastest and easiest way of telling whether a post is trying to fool you. Another interesting one is Twitonomy, which gives you a 40,000-foot view of individual Twitter accounts and their posting habits.

“Such tools will surely prove handy in the lightning-fast news cycle of tomorrow, but they’re continually getting updated and deleted, and none of them are foolproof in the first place. So, it’s important not to get too attached, and to be adaptable when the tools change or go away.

“It’s also worth noting that many old-school reporter’s tricks still apply in the digital age. Verifying social content is basically just digging until you find the source, which often involves picking up the phone and making some calls. And nothing can replace a reporter’s healthy sense of skepticism. Developing a discerning eye without becoming a hardened cynic has always been important for reporters, and that hasn’t changed at all.”


As student journalists get ready for what is likely an unprecedented (to use the buzzword of the year) election, what sage advice would you want to impart to them? Is it any different than what you would tell more experienced journalists at this point?

“I’d tell them that this madness isn’t going away after Election Day. Disinformation tactics on social media are here to stay, barring government regulation. So, young journalists shouldn’t treat these monitoring techniques as trendy or a passing phase in the field. I actually regret not diving into this stuff sooner, because I would have been in a much better position to hit the ground running during this election year. Picking up these skills will give a big boost to your early career. At this point, every newsroom needs reporters who are versed in social media literacy.”

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