Journalists must understand provenance, motivation when reporting disinformation, Stanford researchers urge

Two Stanford scholars discuss strategies for reporters and editors to write about disinformation, leaked material and propaganda in a responsible and timely way.

When confronted with propaganda, disinformation or hacks, journalists face a conundrum: How do they cover the newsworthiness of the story without amplifying extreme or dangerous views?

Andrew Grotto and Janine Zacharia

Scholars Janine Zacharia and Andrew Grotto have written a guide for newsrooms on how to report hacks and disinformation responsibly. (Image credit: Geri Migielicz and Rod Searcey)

To help reporters and editors with this dilemma, two Stanford scholars have created a step-by-step guide that newsrooms can turn to about how to write about these campaigns in a responsible and timely way.

Here, its authors, Janine Zacharia, a seasoned journalist with over two decades of field experience, and Andrew Grotto, a former senior director for cybersecurity policy at the White House, talk about strategies news organizations can take when writing their next story about false, misleading or hacked information.

Zacharia is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the School of Humanities and Sciences. Zacharia has worked for outlets including the Washington Post, Bloomberg News and Reuters. In addition to teaching journalism at Stanford, she researches and writes on the intersection between technology and national security, media trends and foreign policy.

Grotto is director of the Program on Geopolitics, Technology and Governance and the William J. Perry International Security Fellow at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center. He is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served as the senior director for Cyber Policy on the National Security Council in both the Obama and the Trump White House.

Zacharia and Grotto are part of the Center for International Security and Cooperation’s Information Warfare Working Group that discusses and provides recommendations for combatting disinformation. Their guide came out of this effort.

 

What inspired you to come up with these specific recommendations for journalists?

Zacharia: Journalists are grappling with the conundrum of how to cover stories involving propaganda without giving oxygen to the false or misleading content that underlies it. It is one of the signature ethical challenges facing contemporary journalism, with implications for not only the profession but for the quality and durability of democratic discourse. Though the problem is widely recognized among reporters, there is an unmet need within the profession for leadership.

 

What is one thing you hope journalists will learn from the guide?

Zacharia: To recognize that they are targets for propaganda campaigns and to focus on the “why” of a story, not only the “what.” The details of the next hack, for example, could be juicy and reporters will be anxious to beat the competition. They need to pause and try to be first, responsibly. We also want news organizations – the businesses that employ and manage journalists – to understand that the recommendations we put forward are not self-executing and that journalists will be hard-pressed to implement them unless they get a strong and clear signal from the leadership at their news organizations.

 

How did you devise these ten recommendations?

Zacharia: We were inspired by what we were discussing in our Stanford Information Warfare Working Group, which enabled us to understand the psychology of how people receive information that is false but still accords with their beliefs. Our deep dive into how Russia, in 2016, manipulated the media gave urgency to the project. Blending that with an understanding of the fundamentals of journalism helped us come up with a preliminary list of recommendations, which we continued to revise over the past six months after consulting with more experts and reporters.

 

Is there anything you hope readers/news consumers can also learn from these guidelines?

Zacharia: An appreciation for the tensions that news organizations face between being first to report and upholding ethical standards. A deeper understanding of how credible fact-based journalism works. Readers of the report can also urge leadership from news organizations, especially the majors, in this realm.

 

What is the difference between disinformation, hacks and propaganda? And what do they share in common? 

Grotto: There are subtle but important differences among these terms. Disinformation, for example, is false information purposefully distributed to deceive, whereas a hack involves breaking into a computer and stealing information. The stolen information may then be leaked to embarrass the victim of the theft. A common thread, though, is that the provenance of the information – who’s behind it and what are their motivations? – is critical context for interpreting the information.

 

How is reporting on these types of campaigns different from covering information that came through Wikileaks or a government whistleblower releasing documents?

Grotto: They present different challenges, but the principles for reporting on them are the same. For example, the provenance of the information is key context regardless of whether it’s a disinformation campaign or leaked documents.

 

As you point out in the guide’s introduction, there are recommendations from other organizations about responsible reporting. What did you feel was missing from the existing literature? What makes your guide unique?

Grotto: We emphasize implementation – how a news organization can bake best practices into their workflows. We also present a streamlined playbook that represents a distillation of what we view as emerging consensus recommendations along with our own insights based on consultations with reporters, editors and researchers in psychology, social science and other disciplines.

 

What inspired you to partner with each other on this guide?

Zacharia: Andy was part of the White House team dealing with election security in 2016 so he had a rare perspective from the inside as Russia’s attempts to manipulate our democracy were unfolding. He also has expertise in how organizations absorb change and recommendations. It was an extraordinary opportunity for me to marry my journalism experience with his background and try to come up with a way to help the news organizations that play such an important role in our democracy.

Grotto: Her contributions to the Stanford Information Warfare Working Group that we are both members of were consistently incisive and spot on. Her background as a journalist also obviously gives her unique insight into the profession. And the fact that she commands the respect of her peers makes her an influential voice in these debates.

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 723-6438; [email protected]