“Credibility Project” wants to distinguish quality journalism in Brazil in order to confront fake news wave

A group of Brazilian journalists, researchers and media have joined to create a kind of stamp of credibility for journalism. The project, a partnership between the Institute for the Development of Journalism (Projor) and Paulista State University (Unesp), sponsored by Google Brazil, wants to develop protocols and tools to identify and certify reliable content on the internet. The aim is to differentiate quality journalism from noise online, in the face of a global wave of fake news.

In Brazil, as in the United States, political polarization has contributed to the spread of rumors and distorted information. In the days before Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment vote in April, three of the five news stories most shared by Brazilians on Facebook were false, according to a survey by the Public Policy Research Group on Access to Information of the University of São Paulo (USP), as published by BBC Brasil.

BuzzFeed made a similar warning: in November, the site said that “the 10 top-performing false stories about the car wash scandal received more total engagement on Facebook that the 10 top-performing true articles.”

It is in this environment that the Credibility Project was formed, and then its media consortium followed, including Abraji (the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism), Agência Lupa, Aos Fatos, Folha de S. Paulo, Jornal da Cidade, Jornal de Jundiaí, Nexo Jornal, Nova Escola, O Globo, O Estado de S. Paulo, UOL and Zero Hora.

The project will debate and reflect on news fragmentation in the digital environment and, secondly, will promote hackathons to develop protocols and prototypes of tools to certify trusted content. The Credibility Project is a Brazilian chapter of the Trust Project, which is based at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in the United States.

In Brazil, the idea for the project started in 2015, when journalist and president of Projor, Angela Pimenta, went to the congress of the Online News Association and heard a talk about the Trust Project.

“In the end, I introduced myself and said that I would like to take this to Brazil. We started talking to Sally Lehrman, director of the Trust Project, and the Projor people gave the ok,” Pimenta said to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. The journalist shared the idea with professor and researcher of the postgraduate program of Media and Technology of Unesp, Francisco Belda, who also works at Projor, and the two worked together on the initiative.

With this, Unesp entered as a partner, with a core of studies within the postgraduate program. “I am developing a 3-year research program, theoretical and applied,  on journalistic credibility, with Masters, doctoral and undergraduate students as well as teaching colleagues,” explained Belda, who is a journalist and doctor in Production Engineering from USP in São Carlos, to the Knight Center.

In the United States, the Trust Project is also sponsored by Google, as well as institutions such as the Markkula Foundation. As Projor already had projects in partnership with Google Brazil, Pimenta contacted the company to present the idea.

“The Google people have always said that we would have to bring the media outlets to the project, which would only go forward if they wanted to participate and have a leadership role,” she said. Pimenta was a senior editor at magazine Exame in Brasilia and received a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia University.

So, in the second half of 2016, Pimenta and Belda, the two Credibility Project coordinators, visited several newsrooms and contacted colleagues to set up the media consortium. According to Pimenta, the Brazilian media recognized the importance and seriousness of the diffusion of fake news in the country and embarked on the project. She believes that today there are several components that encourage production of information without good practices in Brazil.

“We have an environment of great political polarization, a young democracy and a crisis of confidence in institutions in general. And journalism cannot live without the confidence of its public. If people stop believing in the news, this is bad for journalism, because the product loses economic value. And it is also negative for democracy, because journalism has the mission of supervising the powers,” Pimenta explained.

An aggravating factor, according to Belda, is that there is a kind of illiteracy about the news. A journalist, with trained eyes, can differentiate what is advertising, opinion, analysis and reporting, as well as identify news with little credibility. The average citizen already often confuses the origin and purpose of content.

“A lot of people are now being informed on the most varied topics on the internet in an uncritical way. The person trusts a news story because a family member shared it on WhatsApp or Facebook, or because the news appeared prominently when she searched the internet. But these sources are not necessarily reliable,” the researcher said.

He said a journalist is able to identify a rigorous investigation process and knowns source credibility, but other readers can be fooled by little tricks.

“Some make a layout that simulates a newspaper, but it does not have a newsroom behind it. Others make a headline or text with news style, but without checking and reporting. And in many cases, they copy information from a newspaper, but they have adulterated aspects of information, cutting and including parts. Or they misleadingly attribute content: ‘this text was published on the BBC or in The New York Times,’ but it was not actually,” Belda noted.

The coordinators of the project said that in the chaotic environment of the internet, the user loses the traceability of the information. Additionally, the newsroom that produced the content often does not keep track of its distribution. Therefore, the reputation of the brand would not be sufficient to guarantee the quality of information on the internet, as happens in the printed newspaper, for example, Belda said.

“Often the reader is not even attracted to the reliable news because he ends up finding texts of dubious quality, but with a greater reading appeal and more suitable for sharing in social media,” the researcher said.

From the discussion to the tools

The Credibility Project is still in its initial stages. First, the group organized a survey of about 300 journalists, due to be finalized in December. The survey would allow them to list some criteria for credibility - the result will be debated in the consortium, which will refine the attributes. The goal is to come up with a list of characteristics, some subjective and some more objective, that, in the future, will serve as a basis for authentication and certification.

The Trust Project, for example, has just organized a hackathon at the BBC in London to create prototype tools based on the following credibility criteria: best practices (policies on ethics, diversity, corrections, etc); author’s resumé; citations and references; tags to differentiate news, analysis, opinion and advertising; original reporting; location (context and background of the news, location of the author at the time of writing); diversity of voices; actionable feedback for the public and newsroom; and geolocation for materials. In addition to the BBC News Lab, media outlets like The Economist, The Guardian, La Stampa and others also participated.

According to Pimenta, the Credibility Project does not have to follow the same criteria, but the list will help in the elaboration of attributes in Brazil. “We consider that this information is part of journalistic governance.  Those who buy and read the news have the right to know this. For example: who is the author? Are you a trained journalist, have you written any books on the subject, won any awards, covered any war? Did the journalist go to the street to report? What is the location?” Pimenta explained.

One of the project’s missions is to promote the debate about credibility, both in academic as well as in the consortium. Thus, the project attempted to bring varied profiles to the media group and to bring together professionals working within newsrooms, in leadership positions.

“We have representatives from the fact-checking agencies, from large media outlets and others that are emerging in digital journalism, like Nexo, and are committed to quality journalism,” Belda explained.

After the debates, come the hackathons, to develop the protocols. According to the coordinators, the objective is not to create a unique source code, tool or application, but to establish a set of procedures and instructions that can serve as a model for all outlets. In this sense, the prototype would be useful only as a demonstration.

“This sequence of procedures can be incorporated into a number of programs. So, Estadão, Folha, and Nexo, each one may have its own application, but all would be committed to the protocol of credibility, which once followed, gives that newspaper a kind of seal of quality, such as the seal of organic products,” Belda explained.

The initial idea of the project is to construct a layer of metadata, in which the journalist can insert other information, markers and labels about its content, like, for example: author, references, sources and geolocation. “These metadata do not have to be ostensibly displayed, but they will be recorded as a way of tracing and making references in that material,” Belda said.

Such good practices can be replicated and adapted to the publisher of each media outlet. “Is your publishing software adapted to inserting some metadata? If it isn’t, we can suggest some adaptations, but we will not invade the technology of each media outlet and standardize as we see fit,” the researcher said.

The first hackathons are planned for next year, after the consortium meetings and debates. To learn more and to follow the Credibility Project, click here to sign up for the project newsletter.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.