The relationship between public opinion and journalism has long been a considered a cornerstone of modern functioning democracies. This important relationship has been the focus of scholarship across broad disciplines such as journalism studies, communication, sociology, philosophy, and political science. One hundred and twenty years ago, French sociologist Gabrielle Tarde outlined the press–conversation–opinion–action model to illustrate the role that the press and journalists have on initiating conversation among citizens, forming public opinion, and how this opinion translates into civic action that fosters social change. Highly related to Tarde’s press–conversation–opinion–action model are current theories of journalism and public opinion such as agenda-setting, priming, the two-step flow hypothesis, diffusion of innovation, and the spiral of silence. All of these theories relate to how the press can inform citizens, foster interactions with others, shape their opinions, and mobilize citizens into civic engagement and political action. However, in today’s mobile, digital, and highly segmented communication landscape defined by “post-truth” and “alternative facts” and where emotions resonate more than evidence because of audience biases and identity protective cognition, the problem of the spread of misinformation has caused a great deal of consternation among journalists, pundits, and public opinion scholars, leading to a global rise in fact-checking. But because much of the misleading and deceptive claims in today’s communication environment appear first on social media, there is currently a fervent quest for automated computational fact-checking.
Bruce W. Hardy
Accuracy is a central norm in journalism and at the heart of the journalistic practice. As a norm, accuracy developed out of objectivity, and has therefore an Anglo-American origin. Nevertheless, the commitment to the rule of getting it right is shared among journalists across different journalistic cultures. The history of accuracy is closely related to other central concepts in journalism like truthfulness, factuality and credibility, because it raises epistemological questions of whether and how journalism is capable of depicting reality accurately, truthfully and based on fact. Accuracy plays a particularly important role with regard to the factuality of the journalistic discourse, as it forces journalists not only to ground their reporting on facts, but to check whether presented facts are true or not—which is reflected both in the description of the journalistic profession as the discipline of verification as well as the central relevance of accuracy for instruments of media self-regulation like press councils and codes of ethics. Accuracy is an important standard to determine the quality of the news reporting. In fact, many studies, most of them carried out Western democracies, have investigated the accuracy of journalistic reporting based on the number of errors that sources mentioned in the articles perceived. As journalism moved online and the immediacy of the news cycle requested a faster pace of publication, news outlets often adopted the strategy to publish first and to verify second, although research has shown that the accuracy of journalistic reporting and trustfulness are related. Especially in the current debate on disinformation, many online fact-checking and verification services have thus seen a global rise of attention and importance.
While the periodizing concept “post-truth” (PT) initially appeared in the United States as a key word of popular politics in the form “post-truth politics” or “post-truth society,” it quickly appeared in many languages. It is now the object of increasing scholarly attention and public debate. Its popular and academic treatments sometimes differ in respect to its meaning, but most associate it with communication forms such as fake or false news, rumors, hoaxes, and political lying. They also identify causes such as polarization and unethical politicians or unregulated social media; shoddy journalism; or simply the inevitable chaos ushered in by digital media technologies. PT is sometimes posited as a social and political condition whereby citizens or audiences and politicians no longer respect truth (e.g., climate science deniers or “birthers”) but simply accept as true what they believe or feel. However, more rigorously, PT is actually a breakdown of social trust, which encompasses what was formerly the major institutional truth-teller or publicist—the news media. What is accepted as popular truth is really a weak form of knowledge, opinion based on trust in those who supposedly know. Critical communication approaches locate its historical legacy in the earliest forms of political persuasion and questions of ethics and epistemology, such as those raised by Plato in the Gorgias. While there are timeless similarities, PT is a 21st-century phenomenon. It is not “after” truth but after a historical period where interlocking elite institutions were discoverers, producers, and gatekeepers of truth, accepted by social trust (the church, science, governments, the school, etc.). Critical scholars have identified a more complex historical set of factors, to which popular proposed solutions have been mostly blind. Modern origins of PT lie in the anxious elite negotiation of mass representative liberal democracy with proposals for organizing and deploying mass communication technologies. These elites consisted of pioneers in the influence or persuasion industries, closely associated with government and political practice and funding, and university research. These influence industries were increasingly accepted not just by business but also by (resource-rich) professional political actors. Their object was not policy education and argument to constituents but, increasingly strategically, emotion and attention management. PT can usefully be understood in the context of its historical emergence, through its popular forms and responses, such as rumors, conspiracies, hoaxes, fake news, fact-checking, and filter bubbles, as well as through its multiple effects—not the least of which the discourse of panic about it.
The emergence of citizen journalism has prompted the journalism field and scholars to readdress what constitutes journalism and who is a journalist. Citizen journalists have disrupted news-media ecosystems by challenging the veracity and representativeness of information flowing from mainstream news-media newsrooms. However, the controversy related to the desired level of citizen involvement in the news process is a historical debate that began before the citizen-journalism phenomenon. As early as the 1920s, journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman and American philosopher John Dewey debated the role of journalism in democracy, including the extent that the public should participate in the news-gathering and production processes. This questioning of citizen involvement in news reemerged as an issue with the citizen journalism phenomenon around the late 1990s. People with no news-media organizational ties have taken advantage of the convenience and low cost of social computing technologies by publishing their own stories and content. These people are referred to as citizen journalists. Scholars have assessed the quality and credibility of citizen-journalism content, finding that citizen journalists have performed well on several standards of traditional news-content quality. Levels of quality differ dependent upon citizen journalists’ goals and motivations, such as serving the public interest, increasing self-status, or expressing their creative selves. As it is an emerging area of study, unarticulated theoretical boundaries of citizen journalism exist. Citizen-journalism publications emphasize community over conflict, advocacy over objectivity, and interpretation over fact-based reporting. In general, citizen journalists have historically acted when existing news-media journalists were not fully meeting their community’s informational needs. Scholars, however, vary in how they label citizen journalists and how they conceptually and empirically define citizen journalism. For example, researchers have shifted their definitional focus on citizen journalists from one of active agents of democratic change to people who create a piece of news content. The mapping of the citizen-journalism literature revealed four types of citizen journalists based on their levels of editorial control and contribution type: (1) participatory, (2) para, (3) news-media watchdog, and (4) community. Taken together, these concepts describe the breadth of citizen-journalist types. For those of us interested in journalism studies, a more targeted approach in the field of citizen journalism can help us build community around scholarship, understand citizen journalists’ contributions to society and practice, and create a more a stable foundation of knowledge concerning people who create and comment on news content.