As a journalism professor, Stephen Davis likes to know where his students stand in terms of being able to suss out the truth from the fibs.
Each year, he asks his students to research a person online, collect as much data as possible in a given amount of time, and try to determine what’s real from what’s made up.
“Every year I’ve done this exercise – and bear in mind, they’re bright kids who want to be journalists – the numbers failing it went up,” says Davis, who has taught thousands of students around the world. “They’re victims of the sheer volume of misinformation and disinformation circulating around the world.”
It’s so grim, in fact, that Davis compares ubiquitous bad information to a public health threat.
“It’s like Ebola, but it’s more likely to kill society,” he says. “The volume of misinformation and disinformation around the world is vast and our ability to detect it is not great.”
Davis has written a new book, Truthteller, about this exact issue. Historically, people have been able to rely on journalists to sift the fact from the fabrications, but the amount of bad information out there, and young journalists’ increasing disability in picking it out from actual truth, is making even credible outlets subject to following wild goose chases of garbage details.
And while it’s easy to point the finger at the current presidential administration, Davis warns that’s a cop-out that oversimplifies the problem.
“Journalists haven’t adapted to the world of social media,” he says. “A tweet rockets around the world in seconds and is seen by millions. It would be reported by media organizations. When you read the work of the New York Times, you’ll get that the statement is wrong, but it’s too late. We haven’t engaged properly with social media. We don’t even know whether the people quoted are real.”
In the book, he has a section spelling out the trouble with FOIA requests. The problem here is that they’re no longer worded in the most effective manner, but “journalists don’t have time to pursue these. If government removes access to data, they might lie more cleverly as do corporations and other institutions. The volume of misinformation and disinformation makes it easier to hide the lives and harder to investigate the scandals. You can hide your misdeeds in the ocean of misinformation and disinformation circulating the world.”
Professor and author Stephen Davis joins IAJ producer Michael O’Connell to explain how a little test he gives students inspired a book on the difficulty young and seasoned journalists alike are having in separating the truth from bad information.