Fact-checking at the J-School Hackathon

Dec 09 2016

Media outlets are now more deeply embedded in our every waking moment than ever before. Our smartphones have made news consumption easier than it’s ever been. And the news we consume on our phones can be transmitted to the eyes of our friends with the split-second tap of a finger.

But more news doesn’t equal better news.

As Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets assume dominance as editorial gatekeepers, their new roles reveal the difficulties in fact-checking and verifying the information propagated through their domains.

The challenge of news verification was center stage at MediaShift’s third annual Journalism School Hackathon, where students, faculty and professionals from across the country assembled to share perspectives and tackle the problem head-on – one weekend to disrupt media.

2016: The year of the fact-checker

The timing was impeccable for the Hackathon’s chosen theme of fact-checking and verification.

At a time of upmost political importance and just weeks before a general election, The New York Times reported that social media outlets exposed millions of Americans to false news stories concerning the nation’s two presidential candidates.

But in the days following Donald Trump’s Election Day victory, the issue of fake news exploded onto the national consciousness with reports that false election news generated more engagement from online users than content from real news site.

Sensational headlines and outrageous statements of fact were shared to the tune of millions. False content found its way alongside professional content from reputable news outlets – but why? And where does that pain point hit hardest? These were the recurring themes in an election year dominated by conversation on social media.

The Hackathon sought to answer these questions and foster meaningful conversation between teams of college students and their facilitators – professionals with working knowledge of the media’s ongoing evolution.

Best of all, the Hackathon facilitated a dialogue that extended beyond the teams’ designated work spaces in Grady College. The conversation trickled onto the walkways of the University of Georgia and the streets of Athens, where students and residents of all ages and backgrounds acknowledged the influence social media outlets have on their news consumption.

Desirability, feasibility and viability

While understanding the importance of fact-checking media proved easy, creating a business model around it was more challenging.

Each subset in the media industry’s growing list of stakeholders represent potential customers for a startup in the realm of fact-checking – but each group of stakeholders also possesses unique interests that must be fully understood before determining who exactly values media fact-checking enough to back it financially.

My team was charged with creating a startup idea in the realm of both fact-checking and social media. For us, the issue boiled down to gauging reliability in the news that we consume. That was on the journalism side.

What we learned on the business side was that we still needed to talk to more people to better understand all of the stakeholders involved. No one we talked to in Athens, Georgia said that they – as consumers of social media content – cared enough about the fake news shared on their newsfeed to go out of their way to remove it.

Based on these conversations, we were struggling with the desirability component of forming our idea – so we decided to focus our efforts on the production side of news media.

Our end result was The Watchdog, a stand-alone website that holds journalists and news outlets accountable by rating them on reliability and accuracy. Owners of media companies pay to receive feedback from their ratings, and news consumers have access to the metrics for free. These ratings are then prominently displayed on social media posts to serve as a quick indicator of the reliability surrounding a certain news article or outlet.

Given the delay in figuring out our idea, however, we never got around to conducting meaningful market research. And one question still lingered after the weekend. Who with the financial means is actually going to staff up and address the issue of fake news, and specifically the fake news we’re all engaging with on social media?

An ongoing dialogue

Finding an answer to this deeply rooted question requires collaboration beyond the 48-hour time constraint of the Hackathon. But without a doubt, the conversations we had during our weekend at Grady College were meaningful.

MediaShift tells stories of how the changing digital landscape is shifting the media landscape. Digital disruption is making the world more connected. And conversations, like the ones we had at the Hackathon, are the beginning of how we will adapt business models while better informing our world.


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