(New York, N.Y.)– In a new survey of more than 1,000 reporters and editors nationwide, free expression organization PEN America found that by large margins journalists are alarmed by the disinformation they confront in their daily work, feel ill-equipped and under-trained to deal with the challenge, and see an urgent need to change newsroom tactics.

Eighty-one percent of the journalists responding characterized disinformation as a “very serious” problem for journalism today; 76 percent said they deal with it regularly. Only 8 percent said that detecting and addressing disinformation is “not too important” or a priority at their news outlet while 40 percent categorized this task as “urgent” for their newsrooms.

The journalists said the rising circulation of disinformation had made their professional lives much more fraught: 65 percent had faced hostility from the public, 48 percent reported feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and 42 percent felt some portion of their audience had lost trust in them. Eleven percent acknowledged they had unwittingly reported disinformation themselves.

The survey revealed surging anxiety that disinformation is significantly changing the practice of journalism, disrupting newsroom processes, draining the attention of editors and reporters, demanding new procedures and skills, and putting community trust in journalism at risk, along with diminishing journalists’ professional, emotional and physical security. The disinformation crisis comes at a time when most newsrooms—especially those serving local audiences— face an existential financial threat to their survival. Shrinking budgets and diminished staff make it even more difficult for news outlets to devote resources to debunking disinformation and bringing in new know-how to detect deceptive content.

The survey was conducted for PEN America by the FDR Group during the second half of 2021; responses were received from over 1,000 U.S.-based journalists.

While more than 90 percent of the reporters and editors had made one or more changes in their journalistic practices to cope with disinformation, most said they did not feel they had the specialized skills or the newsroom support systems to respond adequately. Only 30 percent of the journalists said their news outlet had effective processes in place to cope with disinformation; 40 percent said no organization-wide approach exists. Asked about eight different steps media outlets could take to address disinformation — including training journalists in how to report on it —  one in three said their newsroom has not taken a single one.

“Readers trust journalists to stand as a bulwark against falsehoods. PEN America’s survey findings show that their ability to deliver the accurate news citizens need to make informed decisions and be engaged in their communities is under serious threat,’’ said Dru Menaker, PEN America’s Chief Operating Officer. “This raises worrisome implications for the centrality of a free press in our democracy. We see disinformation baselessly undermining faith in our elections, hamstringing life-saving responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and leaving people uncertain where to turn for the truth.’’

“The reporters and editors responding to PEN America’s survey are worried, and we hear how they are struggling to do their jobs,’’ Menaker said. “We hope that these findings will help news outlet leaders, journalism trainers and schools, funders, and supporters of a free press more broadly to develop new strategies that will help newsrooms to fight back against false information intended to deceive the public and cause harm. ”

Many journalists responding to the survey took up the option of reflecting anonymously on the professional crisis caused by the disinformation flood. Among their comments:

  • “There are a lot of ways to combat disinformation—such as assigning special beats, hiring extra reporters, paying for new technology, implementing special programs—that small, independently owned newspapers, like where I work, have neither funds nor staff resources to implement.”
  • “The need to counter disinformation runs up against the need to report all the actual things happening out there. And so on many days, it just can’t be the priority, given all the other things our reporters have to cover.”
  • “The attacks feel overwhelming — from authoritarian governments, from nonstate actors with political agendas, and now from some US officials themselves. It is exhausting to be a journalist right now — [due to] the combination of economic precariousness with all the mistrust and noise out there.’’

Research indicates that disinformation purveyors target communities underserved or ineffectively served by news sources. While overall there were few differences in the survey responses from editors and reporters when disaggregated by race, the results did show that journalists of color are more likely to know about disinformation campaigns designed to mislead racial or ethnic minority groups. Seventy-two percent of journalists of color say they are aware of disinformation campaigns that target racial or ethnic minorities, compared to 46 percent of journalists who are white who say this. Journalists of color are also more likely than white journalists to be aware of disinformation campaigns targeting poor communities (by 63 percent to 46 percent) and non-English speakers (by 48 percent to 28 percent).

Other findings:

  • More than 90 percent had made one or more changes in their journalistic practice as a result of disinformation, including 66 percent who said they are spending more time actively debunking disinformation and 59 percent who reported intentional efforts to be transparent about decisions, methods, and sources.
  • One in three respondents said they found themselves questioning their gut instincts and one in four reported feeling overwhelmed by the level of fact-checking required to complete a story.
  • Seventeen percent said they had avoided doing a story they were considering covering due to fear of “fake news” backlash that would seek to discredit their accurate reporting.
  • Nearly 60 percent said that amid the proliferation of disinformation and distrust, they had received threatening emails, phone calls or letters, been harassed in person while working, been doxed, and/or feared for their personal safety sufficiently to add security precautions to their daily routines.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057