PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When a Republican running for Congress in the Chicago suburbs tweeted that her Democratic opponent’s town hall events were invite-only, they debunked it.
When Illinois’ Democratic governor said a pension change would save the state as much as $25 billion, they rated that mostly false, too.
The Better Government Association is part of a new wave of local journalism outlets trying to stem the flood of misinformation that has increasingly spread to the local level, from congressional races to campaigns for city hall and school boards.
“There is a proliferation of misinformation, capitalizing on the Trump strategy of repeating something until people believe it,” said David Kidwell, a former investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune who now leads the association’s fact-checking efforts. “It’s always gone on, but people are more attuned to it now and hungry for this kind of journalism.”
Political misinformation is often considered a national and international challenge, in part because of the Russian-based trolls and bots that spread false claims and sow division in a bid to influence elections in the U.S. and abroad. But it’s increasingly a problem on Main Street, too, as local candidates and politicians adopt misinformation tactics and local news organizations shrink or shut down, leaving residents with fewer credible sources of information.
Surviving media organizations are responding by partnering with fact-checking organizations such as Chicago’s Better Government Association and creating new anti-misinformation projects. They’re also re-purposing traditional reporting techniques to fit an era of doctored videos, online impersonators and partisan sites masquerading as news.
The fact checks published by the Better Government Association, for example, are the result of a collaboration between the Chicago Sun-Times and PolitiFact, the fact-checking organization owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute. PolitiFact has similar partnerships in 12 other states.
Those kinds of partnerships are more important than ever, with so many local news outlets drained and diminished by years of cutbacks. The ability to identify and call out misinformation on the local level will be put to the test in this year’s elections.
“It’s our job to discern between real and fake, and it’s only getting harder,” said Mike Mulcahy, the managing editor of Minnesota Public Radio, which launched a new anti-misinformation initiative in January. “How we handle this (misinformation) is a key question for our democracy, our culture, our nation.”
Dubbed “Disinformation 2020: Can you believe it?” — MPR’s online and on-air effort seeks to expose misinformation, examine how it spreads online, and help its audience members avoid it. Mulcahy said this year’s elections will be a major focus for the initiative, although not exclusively.
One of the first pieces published as part of the series detailed how social media rumors about hundreds or even thousands of Muslim refugees being resettled in one rural Minnesota county led it to ban refugees — even though there were no such plans.
While there’s been no shortage of reporting on foreign influence campaigns, misinformation at the local level hasn’t received as much attention. In part, that’s because there are fewer reporters to call out those responsible for misinformation.
Nearly 1,800 American newspapers have closed since 2004, and nearly two-thirds of all U.S. counties now have no local daily paper, according to research led by University of North Carolina journalism professor Penelope Muse Abernathy.
“Many people no longer have sources of credible information at the local and state level,” said Abernathy, a former executive at The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
To compensate, news organizations are collaborating with each other or with fact-checking organizations such as PolitiFact to expand their ability to take on misinformation.
A recent analysis by the Poynter Institute found more than 50 U.S. fact-checking organizations are preparing for this year’s election, with 31 of them focusing on states or local communities.
One of the nation’s largest owners of television stations, TEGNA, has announced plans to expand its fact-checking initiative, known as VERIFY. It’s also working with First Draft, an international non-profit that studies and fights misinformation, to train reporters in all 49 of its newsrooms on ways to spot and cover false information they see in their community.
“Fewer than 15 percent of U.S. journalists at regional and national publications can verify misinformation online; we’re aiming to increase that number this year,” said Claire Wardle, First Draft’s co-founder and director.