Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

“Again and again, we found that the most damaging misinformation narratives started as local rumors, memes, and misleading photos — repackaged and reshared across the country.”

There are no miraculous buttons you can press that will stop the spread of dangerous misinformation online. No sophisticated tech tools or algorithms transparent enough on their face to save humanity. No fact-checks that are so perfectly constructed they get around our cognitive machinery.

But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. On the contrary, when local media has the opportunity and resources to collaborate and work toward a common goal — that’s when strong journalism oriented around public service happens.

In 2020, we managed a pilot local fellowship project funded by Democracy Fund for First Draft that brought together five part-time fellows from battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They were based at local news organizations, with the goal of monitoring online misinformation and supporting local experiments in news collaboration.

Over the course of the year, one theme became very clear: Again and again, we found that the most damaging misinformation narratives started as local rumors, memes, and misleading photos — repackaged and reshared across the country, sometimes in different languages.

Misleading claims about Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would show up in Facebook groups in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Local Colorado conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems turned up in QAnon groups in Austria. States that had the resources to monitor these narratives and collaborative infrastructure to share reporting were better equipped to inform their constituents.

Our fellows were on the ground providing this support, and each of them with a different success story or lesson about how misinformation thrives at the local level.

  • In Wisconsin, local sponsor organization Wisconsin Watch partnered with the Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics to raise additional funds to employee First Draft fellow Howard Hardee full-time. Wisconsin Watch had an extensive distribution network, which meant that Hardee’s stories, which ranged from reports on Covid-19 conspiracies to toolkits for reporters covering misinformation, were reprinted by dozens of newsrooms across the state.
  • Colorado saw veteran data journalist Sandra Fish working with the newly formed Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She trained journalists and contributed to virtual community discussions with libraries and other civic institutions. WIth COLab she developed a community Q&A project where reporters answered questions about voting and elections, which was used by newsrooms across the state.
  • In Michigan, fellow Serena Maria Daniels, operating out of Bridge Detroit and with additional support from the American Press Institute, tackled the difficult problem of fighting misinformation when it’s not in English. She worked with translators to get out important voting information in languages spoken in Detroit immigrant communities and distributed copies of these materials to groceries and retail stores across the city
  • Ohio fellow Shana Black, founder of Black Girl in Cleveland, worked with Eye on Ohio. With news deserts expanding in-state following layoffs at The Plain Dealer, she worked with hyperlocal startups. And with additional funding from American Press Institute, she developed podcasts and a voting guide oriented toward the Black community.
  • Florida fellow Damon Scott worked with sponsor organization WRLN to host Facebook Live events ahead of the elections. His insights appeared in stories from the Sun Sentinal and Miami Herald. When all eyes were on Florida during the election, a flood of media requests from national reporters underscored the need for local knowledge.

As national attention turns back toward the pandemic and the economy, nothing fundamental has changed about the way that online misinformation spreads. It can and it will, and local commercial newsrooms will continue to face financial pressure and hardship, even as local nonprofit and collaborative efforts provide energy and bright spots.

Humans matter. Training and tools and research are badly needed but alone are not enough: to increase impact we need to invest in local talent and develop leadership, providing national support in ways that make sense on the ground. One size never fits all.

Shaydanay Urbani is partnerships and programs manager for First Draft. Nancy Watzman is director of the media consultancy Lynx LLC.

There are no miraculous buttons you can press that will stop the spread of dangerous misinformation online. No sophisticated tech tools or algorithms transparent enough on their face to save humanity. No fact-checks that are so perfectly constructed they get around our cognitive machinery.

But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. On the contrary, when local media has the opportunity and resources to collaborate and work toward a common goal — that’s when strong journalism oriented around public service happens.

In 2020, we managed a pilot local fellowship project funded by Democracy Fund for First Draft that brought together five part-time fellows from battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They were based at local news organizations, with the goal of monitoring online misinformation and supporting local experiments in news collaboration.

Over the course of the year, one theme became very clear: Again and again, we found that the most damaging misinformation narratives started as local rumors, memes, and misleading photos — repackaged and reshared across the country, sometimes in different languages.

Misleading claims about Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would show up in Facebook groups in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Local Colorado conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems turned up in QAnon groups in Austria. States that had the resources to monitor these narratives and collaborative infrastructure to share reporting were better equipped to inform their constituents.

Our fellows were on the ground providing this support, and each of them with a different success story or lesson about how misinformation thrives at the local level.

  • In Wisconsin, local sponsor organization Wisconsin Watch partnered with the Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics to raise additional funds to employee First Draft fellow Howard Hardee full-time. Wisconsin Watch had an extensive distribution network, which meant that Hardee’s stories, which ranged from reports on Covid-19 conspiracies to toolkits for reporters covering misinformation, were reprinted by dozens of newsrooms across the state.
  • Colorado saw veteran data journalist Sandra Fish working with the newly formed Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She trained journalists and contributed to virtual community discussions with libraries and other civic institutions. WIth COLab she developed a community Q&A project where reporters answered questions about voting and elections, which was used by newsrooms across the state.
  • In Michigan, fellow Serena Maria Daniels, operating out of Bridge Detroit and with additional support from the American Press Institute, tackled the difficult problem of fighting misinformation when it’s not in English. She worked with translators to get out important voting information in languages spoken in Detroit immigrant communities and distributed copies of these materials to groceries and retail stores across the city
  • Ohio fellow Shana Black, founder of Black Girl in Cleveland, worked with Eye on Ohio. With news deserts expanding in-state following layoffs at The Plain Dealer, she worked with hyperlocal startups. And with additional funding from American Press Institute, she developed podcasts and a voting guide oriented toward the Black community.
  • Florida fellow Damon Scott worked with sponsor organization WRLN to host Facebook Live events ahead of the elections. His insights appeared in stories from the Sun Sentinal and Miami Herald. When all eyes were on Florida during the election, a flood of media requests from national reporters underscored the need for local knowledge.

As national attention turns back toward the pandemic and the economy, nothing fundamental has changed about the way that online misinformation spreads. It can and it will, and local commercial newsrooms will continue to face financial pressure and hardship, even as local nonprofit and collaborative efforts provide energy and bright spots.

Humans matter. Training and tools and research are badly needed but alone are not enough: to increase impact we need to invest in local talent and develop leadership, providing national support in ways that make sense on the ground. One size never fits all.

Shaydanay Urbani is partnerships and programs manager for First Draft. Nancy Watzman is director of the media consultancy Lynx LLC.

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

J. Siguru Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Richard Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Joshua P. Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Juleyka Lantigua   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Cory Haik   Be essential

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer