Monday, February 20, 2017

Accusation-driven reporting

I recently came across an excellent piece by Eric Ravenscraft (old but new to me) on dealing with fake news. The whole thing is worth reading but I wanted to take a minute to share his summary of Prof. Jay Rosen's accusation-based reporting concept.

On top of people making stuff up online (whether intentionally or accidentally,) political and corporate figures often muddy the news waters with accusations. In an attempt to promote “neutrality,” many news outlets are hesitant to claim a statement made by a public figure is outright false, even if it’s demonstrably so. Professor of Journalism at New York University Jay Rosen calls this accusation-based reporting.

Accusation-based reporting follows a basic structure:
  1. Person A makes an accusation against Person B.
  2. Person B denies the accusation.
  3. A news outlet reports that the accusation has been made and denied, but doesn’t offer any information to support or disprove the accusation.
  4. The accusation itself, not the accuracy of the claim, is treated as the newsworthy story.
Rosen says this runs counter to evidence-based reporting. In evidence-based reporting, a story should lead with information about the veracity of the accusation. If there is no evidence to support the accusation, a story should say so. If there is evidence to disprove an accusation, the piece should say that as well. The evidence should be given top billing, instead of the accusation.

For example, President-Elect Donald Trump claimed that millions of votes were cast illegally, costing him the popular vote. As Rosen points out, accusation-based reporting would present this accusation as valid until disproven merely because it was stated by the president-elect. In an evidence-based report, there must be evidence before a story is treated as true. In this particular case, The Washington Post explained that there has been no hard evidence of mass voter fraud on the scale the president-elect mentioned. Recount efforts are underway in several states, but until the recounts are finished or data is released, there’s no evidence to rely on, only accusations.

While most news outlets at least reported this information, many legitimate organizations feature headlines that simply quote the president-elect’s assertion, giving the impression that the accusation is more credible than it is. This practice presents the claim in a bombastic way to draw in readers, but it sets a misleading tone from the outset.

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