U.S. President Donald J. Trump has been a pile of trouble for journalists, as journalists Heidi Skjeseth and Alan Rusbridger write:
“The world is not black and white, neatly divided between truth and untruth, but there are such things as lies. Journalists need to be able to deal with this, especially when powerful people lie in blatant and self-interested ways.”
Skjeseth, a fellow at the Reuters Institute in Oxford, and Rusbridger, a journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, decided to do something about it: They started a Google doc. They crowdsourced ideas for how journalists can do their job of informing the public — “including reaching those who may be more sympathetic to the powerful people who lie than they are to journalists and the news media”, they add.
The project grew fast. Some ideas: Collaborate with other journalists. Send interns to the press briefings, or boycott them. Set the agenda, don’t let go. Make a centralised database of the political agenda. Fact-slam interviews. Develop a ‘reliability index’ for publications. Count the lies. State the truth in the headline, since that’s all many will read. Beware of leaks. There are warnings and tips from Austria (“don’t obsess too much about reporting tweets and inflammatory remarks. The story is in the money”), Russia (“Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you”), Venezuela (“Show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those who brought him to power.”). After more than 100 edits and thousands of shares, Skeseth and Rusbridger closed down public submissions and now are working on a summary and recommendations.
Skjeseth took a few moments out from editing the now 52-page document to tell us about how it started and where it’s heading. If you have comments or suggestions, email Heidi Skjeseth.
Kate Golden, Walkley Foundation: A lot of reporters out there feel frustrated that facts don’t seem to be ‘working’ these days. Is that you? Tell me a little about what inspired this.
That is definitely me, though I don’t think it’s entirely true that facts are not working. I think they still are. But we have seen a lot of so-called fake news and untrue stories going around, and of course it is frustrating. This is also a problem the big platforms (i.e. Facebook) have to deal with, and it seems they are finally taking it seriously. What is more worrying is the frequent use of lies coming from the people in power.
The moment that got us started with this project, was when Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway presented and defended the administration’s “alternative facts” coming directly from the White House. It is not new that politicians spin and present stories with a narrative that benefits their agenda, but the tone and frequency is new and very worrying. That said, this is not an anti-Trump initiative; it is simply an attempt at crowdsourcing good ways to deal with powerful people who lie.
What ideas have risen to the top for you? What has surprised you?
There have been many contributors suggesting we change the way we cover the powerful. That we should rely less on insider access and more on outsider reporting.
Some have argued for a complete boycott of White House press briefs, which I don’t think is the way to go. I do like the suggestion of not streaming all the press conferences and all the press briefs directly, but to present them in context and with facts.
Some have also argued strongly for the need for collaboration between competing news outlets. In such a competitive environment, that might prove challenging, but it would be a lot more efficient. While not exactly a surprise, the many experiences from other countries, where journalists have long struggled with this same problem, have been very helpful. Both because they have experience in dealing with this, and as a reminder that this is not a unique situation, and we can learn from each other.
Whether news organisations explicitly call statements ‘lies’ has become a bit of an obsession in some quarters. How important do you think that is?
I don’t think the word lie is the most important here, but that journalists are truthful and make it clear when the information they are getting is incorrect. That means we should also be honest and transparent when we don’t actually have the facts, and be careful how we angle our articles.
Logistics. How’s the Google Doc editing working — pros and cons? Any tips for people doing this kind of crowdsourcing project in the future?
This has taken more time than we anticipated. Which is good! It means the project is working. We decided to keep the document open for anyone to edit and comment on, which has worked well. This means I have to edit a bit every day, to keep it on the road. But so far, so good.
We also allow for anonymous comments, though we encourage contributors to leave their twitter handle. The advantage is that the bar is low, we want everyone who feels like it to participate.
And it has worked. We started with five pages one week ago. Today the document is 38 pages long. The biggest disadvantage is potential sabotage of the document. I make a copy every day just in case. It requires a bit of work. We are wondering if we should set up a Slack line for further debates.
Tips: Decide what you want to do with it, and make the rules clear at the top of the document. If you need stats you should include Google Analytics with it from the start. We didn’t, and while we can count the edits, we can’t count the views.