Last week I mentioned PEN America's Banned Book Index. I had forgotten, until I received an email the afternoon before that column was published, that I had participated last year in a survey of more than 1,000 journalists on dealing with disinformation.
No, not the disinformation that my feline charge Charlie keeps trying to feed me. No, Charlie, your mom didn't say that you get unlimited outside time and treats. I have enough to answer for since I got you hooked, however unintentionally, on those catnip treats.
PEN America, founded in 1922, "is the largest of the more than 100 centers worldwide that make up the PEN International network. PEN America works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others," according to its website.
While there is and should be wide latitude to create and access a wide variety of reading material, disinformation--content created and distributed with the intent to deceive--poses special problems for journalists.
PEN America reported, "Professional journalists, editors, and news organizations that provide credible reporting and promote informed civic engagement stand as a bulwark against the onslaught of disinformation being injected into public discourse. It is from their newspapers, websites, and broadcasters that communities can expect to access reliable information and understand the debates that shape their societies. Journalists have long been tasked with holding public officials to account, thwarting obfuscation by those with political or economic power, and probing for the facts. Never before, however, have they had to do so in the face of such an extreme surge of falsehoods and manipulations supercharged by algorithms and nefarious actors, and at a time when their news outlets are struggling for survival with starkly depleted resources."
The survey responses showed that "disinformation is significantly changing the practice of journalism, disrupting newsroom processes, draining the attention of editors and reporters, demanding new procedures and skills, jeopardizing community trust in journalism, and diminishing journalists' professional, emotional, and physical security." The vast majority (81 percent) of respondents said disinformation is a very serious problem; I was one of them. The majority of us also deal with it regularly, some of us most days.
Worse, said the report, "More than 90 percent said disinformation had an impact on their experiences as journalists in recent years; 65 percent had faced hostility from the public, 48 percent reported feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and 42 percent felt some portion of their audience had lost trust in them."
Which, of course, is part of disinformation's purpose.
The group's analysis tracked closely with trends that "PEN America has identified as major threats to freedom of expression and its underpinning role for a democratic, equitable, and inclusive society." Those include a surge in online abuse (such as trolling, threatening emails and doxing) in an effort to intimidate journalists into self-censorship; the loss of local news outlets providing community-level news coverage, leading to less informed and civically engaged communities; and undermined trust in the press. "Disinformation and false accusations about the veracity of facts can leave individuals confused and communities divided, unsure what sources to rely upon," the group reported, "potentially leading them to put news outlets with ethics and standards codes into the same bucket as purveyors of falsehoods."
I mean, InfoWars and The New York Times are basically the same, right?
I'm not sure what we in local news media can do other than just continue to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. We can continue to debunk false claims, but we risk the backfire effect embedding the beliefs even further. Whatever we do, there will always be some people we will never convince that we're on the level because they have been conditioned to believe that whatever they don't agree with is "fake news." No wonder so many of us are tired and overwhelmed. As one respondent to the survey said, "It is exhausting to be a journalist right now--the combination of economic precariousness with all the mistrust and noise out there."
As for me, I'll continue to reject assertions that have been debunked and/or don't at least attribute the source or make clear that it's the writer's opinion and not necessarily fact. That means political talking points won't get much love, regardless of where they originated, because the bulk of them are couched in deceit ... and usually logic-deprived as well.
I haven't had to deal with as much trolling as usual since the comment function on the newspaper website has been malfunctioning, and I can hope that in the meantime the usual suspects have found new hobbies.
Charlie, though, is committed to his hobby of trying to pull one over on his sitter. At least he's cute.
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.