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A journey to the home of the alternative facts

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In May 2018, I traveled for one week to the United States for participating in a research fellowship focused on "Journalism in the era of disinformation". Together with 15 student journalists from Germany and the US, I visited various news outlets, think tanks and journalism schools in Washington DC, Charlottesville and New York City.

A field report by Daniel Wydra

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We met with executive editors or directors talking about how to combat disinformation. Regarding the permanent online newsflow, many speakers argued that they need reliable, long-established connections to provide well-researched reports to a news environment in which promptness can be decisive.

Realized for the first time, the fellowship was arranged by the exchange organization Cultural Vistas.

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As free speach is guaranteed by the constitution, various media outlets legally publishing articles which are not based on facts have been established in the US. Furthermore, disinformation can be spread via social media as easy as in other countries.

According to my perception, factchecking organizations are more present in public than in Germany - despite or even because of lesser personal rights. Especially in Washington DC we met with different associations fostering media transparency.

Benefitting from lower data security policies in the US, the associations publish guidelines on how to recognize disinformation, create Twitter campaigns to reveal hoaxes or simply check the accuracy of press releases and social media activities.

The US government is also interested in transparency - at least regarding the foreign lobbyists who want to influence US policies. In 1938 the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was introduced in law. External contractors to foreign embassies as well as corporate lobbyists working in the US must be registered as foreign agents. In addition, all lobbying investments have to be disclosed.

There are several databases you can use for searching documents concerning the FARA legistlation. One of them is called Foreign Lobby Watch. You just need to enter a keyword to see how persons or companies are related to FARA. This tool was shown to us by the Center for International Policy.

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For one day we escaped from the busy capital to the provincial town of Charlottesville, Virginia. The city (50,000 inhabitants) is known for its university founded by Thomas Jefferson, but in August 2017 incidents around demonstrations of white nationalists and racists - who claimed to preserve a monument to a Civil War general - were reported worldwide.

On August 12, 2017, a car was intentionally directed into a group of counter protesters - a women was killed, dozens of protesters were injured. Later a police helicopter crashed down due to technical failure - two pilots died.

As it became usual in today's digital newsflow, rumors and disinformation were spread concerning assumed connections of both incidents. For local media it was an extremely big challenge to keep track of the events.

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Aaron Richardson, managing editor of the Charlottesville local newspaper "The Daily Progress" did not have enough reporters to cover all events around the demonstrations. "Partly we had to rely on legitimate sources to which we were already connected earlier", he said. With this support the newspaper had avoided to publish misinformation.

The local TV station is hosting programs for three nationwide broadcasters. News Director Val Thompson had to send all disposable reporters from the area to the demonstration sites. "To coordinate the coverage, we used our small newsroom as a control room. We were scheduling all reporters as well as collecting and rating all incoming news there", he said.

For the future, Thompson has an optimistic view. In November 2017 - just three months after the demonstration incidents - the number of users watching programs from his TV station had increased by 25 per cent.

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At least two media outlets which are researching worldwide are based in New York City. Actually, we had appointments at The New York Times and the Associated Press (AP). Both speakers confirmed that journalists were frequently treated rougher since Donald Trump was elected to US president.

"For example, one of our reporters was banned from a press conference by Scott Pruitt (administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency) - allegedly due to a lack of seats", said John Daniszewski, vice president at AP, responsible for standards. In fact, he assumed that the reporter was ruled out because he had asked critical questions earlier.

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As Donald Trump communicates important decisions at first via Twittter, news outlets have to monitor his account. Justin Bank, senior editor for internet and audience at The New York Times, admits that Trump's communication tools are better than the media ones. "He is setting our agenda", Bank says.

For John Daniszewski, the age of the age of digital journalism is no reason to generally mistrust his sources. "But of course we have to monitor and sometimes correct our stories." For fulfilling that aim continuously, existing cooperations with other press agencies like the German dpa would be very helpful.

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John Daniszewski, Associated Press

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Text: Daniel Wydra

Bilder: Daniel Wydra, Adrian Breda, Flickr, opensecrets.org, medium.com

Entstanden im Rahmen der Lehrredaktion Fernsehjournalismus II am Journalistischen Seminar der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

Verantwortlich: Prof. Dr. Katja Schupp

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