Journalism is now the second draft of history

In the age of the relentless media fact-check, reading the news often feels like hearing a punch-line deflated before you catch the body of the joke.

Free-floating fact-checking initiatives have lately become big (non-profit) business. In an industry—the written media—whose economic fortunes are in wholesale retreat, rapid rebuttal of other people’s facts is one of the few growth areas. They’re the new kids on the block: wonks who make it their business to debunk hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and “alternative facts” online. Some are bankrolled by the big tech companies as a clumsy act of penance, others by big liberal foundations who think it might help restore trust in the credibility of journalism. Stemming the tide of “fake news,” goes the theory, is one of the few incontrovertible ways to bring reason back to political affairs, to stabilize the ship. At a recent conference in Europe, I met a charming former journalist whose fresh purpose, almost certainly with dough from some well-meaning foundation, was to teach fact-checking skills to children.

Let’s leave aside the potentially authoritarian echoes of teaching innocents to recognize insidious “fake news.” Or the tendency for fact-checking schemes, whether algorithmic or analog, to be tone deaf to satire, parody, hyperbole, and downright exaggeration—most of what gives political rhetoric, as well as children’s stories, their meaning and power. Most of their output is aimed at the torrent of rumor and idiocy blown in from new media—nefarious Russian trolls, Fox News, and the excitable alt-right, your intemperate president. But fact-checking Donald Trump, for example, is like strapping a lie-detector on a stand-up comedian. The American president is a conspiracy theorist; facts are not his strong suit. This doesn’t seem to have done him any harm, and might even have done him some good.

Fact-checking his speeches and tweets to death is a grossly technocratic simplification of a real problem. The idea that today’s populism is motivated by nonsense facts and Russian trolls itself needs to be fact-checked, because it is one of the most dangerous canards of our time. Did the British really vote for Brexit because a blonde rhetorician promised them 350 million pounds a week for the National Health Service if they did? Did Americans vote for Trump because someone on Facebook said he had the blessing of the pope? The election of Trump and the rise of populism everywhere have little or nothing to do with false facts. Rather, they speak to a running sore in Western democracies, a stark and still-widening gulf between political and media elites and the people they claim to represent. Why then, would anyone imagine that further tinkering with our media diet would do any good, and not a great deal more harm?

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The unavoidable truth is that first draft of history is no longer written in tomorrow’s newspaper. Instead, it’s tapped out on new and social media, which is thick with rumor and conspiracy. There’s little journalists can do about crap on the internet; taking aim at disinformation is like firing a machine-gun at an unruly flock of birds. What we can do is to get our own house in order. Amid the ocean of information out there, our worry as journalists should not so much be about people believing everything they read on the internet but that they might end up believing none of it. Good journalism could help with that. But surrendering our ability to check facts to external authorities won’t—it will only make the loss of confidence in journalism worse. In its impoverished state and leaning heavily on the output of others, what we publish often comes peppered with partisan half-truths which lack perspective or any broader factual architecture—an understanding of the context in which all this happened, or in which information about how it happened might have come our way.

Our worry as journalists should not so much be about people believing everything they read on the internet but that they might end up believing none of it.

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A modest suggestion: why not try restoring our authority by doing less, but with greater depth and context? The result would be a slower kind of journalism which relies on the accumulation of detail and reaches for underlying truths. This new approach to journalism is already in the ether; let’s call it a second draft. A good second draft will often take its inspiration from the first draft on new and social media. But neither should journalism be shy about contradicting the first draft, or turning the draft’s own shortfalls into the story, or subjecting it to the full force of our investigative armory. When journalism was dropped into huge new media ecosystems like Facebook and Google, the temptation was to borrow from their ways of doing things—and to try to do everything, all the time—rather than teaching them our own. But if there’s one thing the convulsions of the last decade have taught us, it’s that that doesn’t work—either editorially or financially.

In its time of economic need, journalism—and many journalists—retreated to universities. If they don’t pay for what we do, went the implicit reasoning, then at least they can pay for what we teach. But what often looks like a defensive maneuver can, if we work towards a second draft, becomes a magnificent opportunity to renew the profession. The analysis of new media is a great new addition to the toolbox of journalists, but even its proudest advocates would admit it only unfolds over one narrow dimension. A second draft would bring all that new material into a conversation with a wide range of experts: architects to add extra spatial dimensions, techies and psychologists to work out whether we’ve been duped, linguists to translate, political scientists, indigenous reporters to supply rich local nuance, storytellers and filmmakers to help us find an audience, even lawyers to push the authorities on our behalf.

Where could we possibly find all these ingredients in the same place? In a university like Harvard, for example, or the London University to which I’m usually attached. The reserve army of intellectual labor in the modern university is unprecedented. A second draft would find willing allies in many of those geeky heroes whose open-source investigation skills have gotten them jobs in the fact-checking industry. The great thing about a satisfying second draft is that it will have more time to concern itself more with process as well as product—giving us the chance to explain things as we go along and retell the story of why independent journalism and its values matters. If nothing else, it’d make for a great new educational tool.

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James Harkin is director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism and a fellow of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. The above is an extract from his forthcoming Shorenstein Center paper about new media propaganda wars and the dilemmas of fake news.