Countering disinformation: enhancing journalistic legitimacy in public service media

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Journalism Media and Cultural Studies


The rise of disinformation about politics and public affairs represents an existential threat to democratic governance in many countries. After all, democracy rests on citizens having access to accurate and reliable information sources in order to make judgments about how they should be governed. But over recent years public trust in the news has declined and the legitimacy of journalism has been undermined. In collaboration with leading public service media (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) and a commercial news organisation (Sky News), this project will develop the most in-depth UK comparative study to date that analyses disinformation reporting and critically examines how news users respond to it. By working collaboratively with senior editors to identify where TV, online and social media platforms can more effectively counter disinformation and communicate this reporting, the aim of the project will be to enhance journalistic legitimacy in ways that better serve the democratic needs of citizens.

From state interference in other countries' election campaigns to the emergent influence of populist political candidates, parties and movements, the infrastructure of today's media and communication environment has opened up new ways of manipulating and disrupting flows of information. As a consequence terms such as 'post-truth politics' or 'fake news' have become synonymous with the changing political environment, the growing supply of dubious disinformation and a crisis in the legitimacy of contemporary journalism. Whether teenage Macedonians inventing 'news' in order to influence the US elections or the Ukrainian government falsely declaring a journalist had been killed by Russian forces, the source of disinformation can range widely from democratic states entering into diplomatic games to private citizens acting duplicitously or for financial gain. While citizens may have been exposed to disinformation online, whether from a story being shared on Facebook or liked on Twitter, most - as research has shown - will be more likely to encounter disinformation from mainstream media organisations, such as the BBC. This is because legacy media remain the most widely consumed and influential information sources, with news produced by public service media often singled out for being the most trusted in representative UK surveys. However, the rise of partisan news and disinformation across online and social media platforms has created echo chambers and filter bubbles that are increasingly undermining the legitimacy of news produced by public service media. In order to ensure public service media are viewed as a credible news source into the 21st century, it is essential that their disinformation reporting addresses the needs of citizens in a fast-changing media ecology.

The project will interview senior editorial staff at leading public service media and Sky News in the UK, develop an in-depth content analysis of their news across TV, online and social media, and carry out 18 focus groups with news users. The aim of the study will be to find editorial solutions to countering disinformation in routine reporting, identifying the ways in which the legitimacy of journalism can be enhanced according to news users. From state propaganda to dubious claims made by politicians, our project will assess how such disinformation can be more effectively challenged and communicated in ways that reinforce and promote journalistic legitimacy among citizens. We will work closely with broadcasters to understand their disinformation reporting and discuss whether it is viewed as legitimate journalism by news users. The project's findings will be promoted widely across our university networks and in popular media, and we will engage with relevant stakeholders, such as journalists, regulators, politicians, policy makers and citizens, through public and private meetings and events.

Planned Impact

The main impact objective of this proposal is to enhance journalistic legitimacy by working with senior editors and regulators at leading public service and commercial news media to enhance disinformation reporting and, ultimately, raise public knowledge and understanding of public affairs.

Specifically, the project will:

- Provide a means for broadcasters and regulators to understand the effectiveness of routine disinformation reporting.
- Support the reflective process that will make disinformation reporting much more effective.

In the longer term, the project will help broadcast news retain and enhance its legitimacy according to news users, and more broadly ensure public service media remain an authoritative and trusted source of news in years to come. At present, there is limited collaborative research that directly works with senior editors to counter the growing mistrust of news media. This has potentially huge implications for the health of democracy, since the news media represent the primary source of information most people rely on to understand what is happening in the world. Our project offers a vital way of developing a collaborative relationship with the news industry that can build the necessary evidence base and support a way forward for engendering greater legitimacy in journalism produced by leading UK news organisations.

By developing a constructive relationship with news organisations, the research will impact on future editorial judgements about disinformation conventions and practices. The responses among news users in the focus groups, for example, could make editors rethink how their journalism can be rethought in ways that serve news users more effectively. When we discuss the findings with the editorial teams of each media organisation, we will encourage them to critically re-examine their disinformation initiatives, changing their editorial codes, practices and conventions in ways that will enhance public legitimacy in news reporting.

By engaging with Ofcom and the BBC's unitary board, another aim of the project is to raise editorial standards in news reporting and inform policy recommendations about media regulation. So, for example, if our research established that BBC news output had not accurately informed viewers about a particular issue or that many focus groups members were requesting more robust fact checking in flagship programmes this evidence could inform BBC's unitary broad and lead to future editorial changes at a programme level or in the BBC's editorial guidelines. Ofcom, by contrast, has a statuary role in regulating the UK's due impartiality rules so the evidence about how accurate and impartial all broadcasters are will help them form judgements about any complaints and adjudications.

By presenting research at fringe events at the Conservative and Labour party conferences and disseminating findings through other means, we aim to make evidence-based interventions into UK Parliamentary issues and international debates about news standards and media regulation. For example, in an ongoing select committee inquiry into fake news/disinformation, our findings would identify areas where news standards could be improved according to news users, such as more transparently fact checking events or issues.

The project will also aim to raise public understanding and debate about countering disinformation by writing for popular blogs about the latest research, and disseminating ideas about enhancing legitimacy in journalism across online and social media platforms. In doing so, we aim to engage a wider audience about media literacy and use that engagement in our collaborations with editors to ensure it feeds into their future editorial output that will ultimately benefit the many millions of UK users who rely on public service media for accurate and impartial journalism.
Description So far our research has explored media coverage of dis/misinformation and public responses to it in a different ways. We have examined specific topics in short articles for popular media outlets, as well as more substantively in academic publications. Here are 4 areas of research we have explored in detail:

Who's responsible for the lockdown measures? Reporting the coronavirus pandemic in the UK's devolved political system

Our study of the UK's political system develops new lines of inquiry by exploring public knowledge about who was responsible for the lockdown measures across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and how television news framed these decisions at a critical point in the health crisis. We found many respondents were confused about which government had responsibility over the lockdown measures and that news coverage did not regularly attribute political responsibility to all four nations of the UK at the start of the pandemic. Once the nations began to adopt different lockdown measures, the clarity of reporting legislative decisions improved, with the BBC - the UK's main public service broadcaster - attributing power most regularly.

(Mis)understanding the coronavirus and how it was handled in the UK: An analysis of public knowledge and the information environment

During the coronavirus pandemic, wild conspiracy theories and dubious health guidance about COVID-19 led to a focus on disinformation. But how people relied on the broader information environment to understand the crisis and how it was handled by governments was given less attention. We argue that misinformation is often a symptom of editorial choices in media - including television news produced by public service broadcasters - that can lead to gaps in public knowledge.

Why media systems matter: A fact-checking study of UK television news during the coronavirus pandemic

Academic attention towards the effectiveness of fact-checking often centres on how receptive people are to the correction of news and information. But research has disproportionately focused on the US, which has a highly partisan media and political system. Our study concluded that the UK's impartial media ecology and public service ethos creates an environment where most people - including those who support the government of the day - remain receptive to journalists' fact-checking and countering misinformation. We argue that since audiences favoured robust forms of journalistic scrutiny, broadcasters should more prominently fact-check claims and question dubious claims without undermining trust in journalism.

Countering disinformation by fact-checking journalism: An analysis of news output and editorial judgements during the 2019 UK general election campaign

By conducting interviews with nine senior editors, journalists and fact checkers from BBC Reality Check, Channel 4 FactCheck and Full Fact during the campaign, we find consistent definitions, motivations and values concerning the role and purpose of fact-checking. However, a comparative assessment of fact-checking practices through a systematic content analysis of over 200 fact-checking articles published during the general election campaign reveal inconsistencies across the three organisations. Specifically, we find variance in the choice of agendas, use of sources and degree of clarity when expressing the fact checking 'verdict' of the story.
Exploitation Route We are engaging with broadcasters, regulators, legislators and the public.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The finding so far have had an impact on UK broadcast editorial decision making, media regulation, legislative debate and public debate and engagement: Editors reviewing their coverage of the UK's lockdown measures and any possible misinformation by ensuring they attribute accurate the responsibility of policies to the correct national government (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). Judgements of the UK's main regulator, Ofcom. Our research heavily featured in Ofcom's annual report, Making Sense of Media 2020. Legislators debating media performance and regulation of content. For example, the PI appeared in a Welsh Parliament Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee and our review heavily informed a report entitled: Impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on journalism and local media Public debate and engagement. The media have reported our findings and our publications the public have engaged with our research.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Engaging with broadcasters
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The Channel 5 editor of News made the following comment about our research: "The follow-up research that Stephen Cushion provided for us was invaluable. Programmes are debriefed every day so individual successes and failures are picked up but having an overview helped every understand when we weren't getting it right and why. His 'bird's eye view' of our output was essentially a shortcut to focus on exactly what more we needed to do to be better."
Description Research featured in Ofcom annual review
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact The research informed a policy document that enhanced regulator's knowledge and understanding of people's lack of knowledge about devolved issues and how media could provide more clarity when reporting the nations and lockdown measures in the UK.
Description The Senedd Cymru - Welsh Parliament (Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee) inquiry about local journalism due to Covid
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Innovation for All - Public Engagement Proof-of-Concept Fund
Amount £7,500 (GBP)
Organisation Cardiff University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 07/2022
Description JOMEC Paid Student Placements
Amount £4,851 (GBP)
Organisation Cardiff University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2021 
End 07/2021
Description Editing a special issue of Digital Journalism entitled 'Contesting the Mainstream: Understanding Alternative News Media'. 
Organisation University of Oslo
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution IN THE CURRENT DIGITAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE, marked by declining institutional trust, political polarization and cultural warfare, the rise of new alternative news media has received increased scholarly and political attention. This special issue of Digital Journalism will make a significant intervention into debates about the role and impact of alternative media, enhancing our understanding of their position in the wider digital media landscape. In this special issue we take a relational approach to alternative news media, conceptualising it first and foremost as a proclaimed and/or (self-) perceived corrective, opposing the overall tendency of public discourse emanating from what is perceived as the dominant mainstream media in a given system (Holt et al. 2019, 862). This includes alternative news media propagating different political (e.g. left- as well as right-wing), religious (e.g. fundamentalist), or philosophical (e.g. animal rights) ideologies (Holt et al. 2019). Studies show producers of alternative news actively counter the perceived 'biased', 'corrupt' and 'lying' mainstream media (Figenschou & Ihlebæk 2019). They capitalize on the increasing dissatisfaction and disengagement with mainstream news media (Cushion 2018), often positioning themselves as 'better journalists' (Eldridge, 2018). At the same time, the professionalization of some alternative news media organizations challenges the dichotomy between what might be seen as 'alternative' and 'mainstream' media. This calls for further research on the current spectrum of alternativeness spanning from mainstream to alternative news media (Frischlich, Klapproth, & Brinkschulte, in press). The increased digitalization of public spheres prompts new and urgent questions about how people are informed about politics and public affairs. More people use sources outside of the established news media, particularly those with lower trust in the established news media (Newman et al, 2018). This calls for further contributions that avoid simplistic perceptions of these audiences and confront dystopian assumptions about effects with sound empirical and theoretical work. THIS SPECIAL ISSUE OF DIGITAL JOURNALISM aims to deepen our understanding of the role and impact of digital alternative news media by addressing macro (i.e. regulatory systems, media policy), meso (i.e. production and distribution processes, relations to professional organizations) and micro (i.e. content, content producers/'journalists', users) perspectives about the growth and character of alternative news media. Beyond welcoming research covering alternative news media in the context of populist sentiments and far-right movements (i.e. Brexit, Trump), this issue specially invites contributions from non-Western cultural and political contexts, including non-democratic societies, the Global South and East.
Collaborator Contribution Its a joint editing partnership
Impact Not yet
Start Year 2019
Description ICA Pre Conference 
Organisation University of Oslo
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaborating on an international conference about the role of alternative media and disengagement with mainstream media
Collaborator Contribution Joint
Impact No yet complete
Start Year 2019
Description Presentation to Impress, a media regulator 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The research team presented our research to Impress, a regulator of alternative media
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Presentation to Ofcom 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A pre-recorded presentation was sent to relevant Ofcom officials who were briefed about our research. This sparked questions and discussions internally among staff at the UK's main media regulator.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021