Journalism is under attack from every corner.
Donald Trump has been attacking the industry ever since he started running for president in 2015, and single-handedly popularized the term “fake news.” On Wednesday, he was joined by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who went on an anti-media tirade to his nearly 22 million Twitter followers, telling them that journalists are under pressure to “get max clicks” and that he wanted to start a new site to rate the credibility of media organizations.
But these are outright attacks, that seem designed to intimidate outlets from pursuing hard stories, and to dissuade readers from believing unfavorable coverage.
Facebook, which has has been trying to portray itself as a friend to digital publishers for the last few years, has a more insidious problem. At an institutional level, the company does not seem to understand or value journalism.
On Wednesday, the company made a video explaining how the company is fighting fake news.
In the video, a Facebook data scientist named Eduardo Ariño de la Rubia draws a chart separating internet content into four quadrants based along two axes: the horizontal axis is how accurate a piece of information is, and the vertical axis measures how intentionally misleading it is.
The point of the presentation was that Facebook is trying hard to crack down on stories in the upper-left quadrant: false information that was intended to mislead. Ariño de la Rubia labels this material as “hoaxes.”
But before he gets to that point, he draws two squares along the lower half of the chart.
The first square, on the lower left, represents content that’s wrong but not intentionally misleading. Ariño de la Rubia calls this “being wrong on the Internet.”
The second square, on the lower right, represents content that is both correct, and not intentionally misleading. He glosses over this, calling it “being right on the internet,” and jokes, “I’m sure it’ll happen someday.”
In fact, there’s an entire industry devoted to being accurate and not intentionally misleading. It’s called journalism.
A lot of material in the upper right quadrant — high truth, but intentionally misleading — poses as journalism. Ariño de la Rubia gives examples like cherry picking statistics or propaganda, and says that Facebook has to be “very, very careful” here because the company’s committed to free speech.
But there’s actually a fairly clear line between propaganda and journalism. Propagandists have no interest in finding the truth. Their job is to convince.
Journalists don’t care about convincing. Their goal is to paint the most accurate picture of the truth — including truths that powerful people and companies would rather keep hidden. They may not get it right every time, but that’s the goal. There are time-tested methods for finding and fact-checking sources, and armies of editors who drive reporters crazy by forcing them to go back and check and recheck and recheck again to make sure their sources are right.
For instance, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou wrote a series of reports in 2015 that medical tech start-up Theranos’s technology did not work and that the company had systematically decieved investors. These stories were generated by a tip, and he spent months pursuing it, talking to many people in and close to the company, as he recounts in his new book “Bad Blood.“
Theranos tried to stop him, but it turned out that his stories were true. The company’s technology didn’t work. Earlier this year, the SEC charged the company’s co-founders with “massive fraud” for deceiving investors.
When Facebook equates this kind of work with “being right on the internet,” it shows how much respect they afford the profession.
Publishers who are depending on Facebook to throw them a lifeline should take heed.
Facebook shows once again that it does not understand or value journalism