The impact of the Fake News crisis has finally begun to wane. A late-2018 Gallup poll reports that 45 percent of Americans trust mass media reporting, a strong recovery from the all-time low of 32 percent in 2016. Even so, public trust in any information source is fragile, and is difficult to rebuild once fractured.
But that shouldn’t stop publishers from deep-diving into difficult topics that matter to their communities. Though wading through Fake News has made readers more skeptical, it has also made them more engaged and aware of what they’re reading. Walking the fine line between accuracy and opinion will pay dividends for your readers’ perception of your integrity.
For editorial teams and titles preparing in-depth reports on controversial topics, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Consider ad placement: If an interstitial advertisement or sponsor can be even loosely associated with the topic at hand, it opens the door for readers to wonder whether the report was paid for or influenced by them.
- Reports that take a certain position are most vulnerable. Readers who disagree with your stance will be sensitive to biased wording or skewed statistics, intentional or not. At the end of this article are two guides to identifying bias to help you ensure your argument is as fair and balanced as possible.
- Vet your sources. It seems obvious, sure, but checking your sources has become more nuanced. Not only must you be sure your sources are unbiased, but you must be sure their sources are unbiased, especially for highly controversial topics. If you don’t triple-check your facts, disgruntled readers will.
- Prepare for something to be wrong. Sometimes reputable sources don’t get their facts straight. Even the most meticulous reports can contain an error or a typo that skews meaning. What matters in this case is that the error is swiftly corrected and that corrections are publicly recorded.
- Defend with moderation. Readers will share their opinions, for or against, on social media or in letters to the editor. You may feel compelled to respond to questions or criticism directly, either through a follow-up article or through a social media post. A careful and respectful response is both wise and healthy for reader engagement. But, for the sake of your sanity, only respond once, and only to the point(s) you believe have merit. Senseless battles cannot be won.
How to identify bias (in yourself and your sources):
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) Guide to detecting bias:
Cochrane Bias Methods Group’s types of reporting biases