Credit: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

As misinformation surges across social media platforms and fake news websites, topics like covid-19 vaccinations and the climate crisis continue to be subjected to a wide spread of false stories and conspiracy theories. Fuelled by misguided individuals and conspiracy theorists, they perpetuate misinformation as the truth, generating content that creates significant engagement and reach. In fact, a study last year by New York University and the Université Grenoble Alpes revealed that Facebook misinformation gets six times more attention than factual posts.

Furthermore, recent coverage of prominent artists Neil Young and Joni Mitchell boycotting Spotify in protest against its streaming of the controversial Joe Rogan podcast, criticised for spreading anti-vaccination messages, also reminds us just how influential misinformation has become.

Unfortunately, there is no single solution to tackle it, but different industries are coming together to do their part, from artists making a public stand against partisan influencers, social media companies removing false content from their platforms to journalists and academics collaborating on news reporting to make it clearer, more fact-based and unbiased.

But, while removing misleading content is critical for reducing reach and engagement, amplifying the truth to counter it has never been more important.

Importance of collaborating with academics

Despite misinformation hitting journalism hard, by eroding trust in traditional reporting and undermining the credibility of journalists, the industry is experiencing a slight rise in trust. This is driven in part by increasing collaborations with the academic community.

59 per cent of global consumers believe academic experts are the most credible spokespeople, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Research by The Conversation shows that when it comes to climate change, the majority of UK consumers (67 per cent) trust academics as a source of information.

As universities and academics sit at the heart of the UK's thriving research sector, journalists benefit from engaging regularly with academics, for both expert analysis as well as stories emerging directly from research.

Together journalists and academics create a powerful partnership amplifying the truth by making news reporting insightful, fact-based and unbiased. 

Building a strong partnership

Often the challenge of getting journalists to work with academics is they talk different languages and operate on different timescales. Journalists want clear, unambiguous answers now. Academics want to be accurate, nuanced and wait for the data to be ready and reviewed by their peers.

But there are a few simple steps they can take to build a strong partnership:

  • Before deciding who to approach, journalists and academics should start by doing their homework to see who writes or does research in their field. What content, points of view or research resonates with them?
  • A successful collaboration is also more than just a one-time interaction. Both journalists and academics should invest time in building trust and respect to form a strong relationship and collaborate on multiple stories.
  • But most importantly, both need to understand and respect each other's roles, skillsets and ways of working. While a journalist brings a quick-thinking and investigative storytelling mindset, academics have deep subject matter knowledge and expertise with an analytical mindset, preferring a slower and more thorough approach.

Amplifying the truth about net zero

The Conversation recently collaborated with academics James Dyke (University of Exeter), Wolfgang Knorr (Lund University) and Robert Watson (University of East Anglia) to publish the article: Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap.

This story clearly and devastatingly explains the problems inherent in the idea of net zero and why it is an actively dangerous concept. It was published on Earth Day 2021 in partnership with Apple News and led the homepage of their app on the first day of their 'Earth Day Every Day' series for over 12 hours. The article was read over 500,000 times on Apple News, over 250,000 times on The Conversation and is still receiving hundreds of views each day. It created significant debate about the idea that net zero might be dangerous, while also dispelling any net zero myths. The story was picked up by countless media and social media influencers around the world. Greta Thunberg also re-tweeted the article.

Overall, it is strong, clear and trusted partnerships between journalists and academics that create insightful reporting grounded in facts, with an unbiased perspective. All of which are critical ingredients for truthful storytelling. By focusing our efforts on building more successful partnerships, we can strengthen our approach to news reporting and significantly increase our amplification of the truth.

Only then do we have any chance of drowning out enough false stories and misleading messages to start to win the fight against misinformation.

Chris Waiting is the chief executive at The Conversation. He previously held senior management positions at the BBC and more recently at the Associated Press. He holds an MA from the University of Cambridge and an MBA from the London Business School.

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