Columbia Journalism Review
The saying, in its various forms, is attributed to several historical figures. One version is: “If you repeat a falsehood often enough, people will eventually come to believe it.” In today’s media, the repetition may not come from one individual. Instead, it can come from various sources. A single news outlet may print something inaccurate. Before it is corrected or challenged, other news outlets refer to the initial account. Then more outlets refer to it – noting that it’s widely reported – and soon it becomes part of every story. Even though it’s not true.
Political candidates and policy advocates have often played fast and loose with the facts – that’s a given. But in many instances, they’ve been kept in check by serious journalists who work hard to understand and explain the facts to their audiences.
In 2004, as the pace of media coverage quickened, we saw a need and reached out to Nicholas Leman, Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism with a question. What would it take to develop the real-time capacity to track, correct, and strengthen campaign reporting as it was happening? As a result of subsequent conversations, CJR and RFF partnered to form Campaign Desk, a service that monitored media for inaccuracies and bias during the heat of the 2004 election. The effort was credible in large part because of Columbia’s century-long legacy of leading journalism scholarship. It worked as anticipated, leading to corrections of erroneous reporting and innuendo, and helping to short-circuit the instinct toward pack journalism. Campaign Desk now has an expanded mission, blossoming into CJR Daily, which tracks media coverage of politics and policy year round. It has become a touchstone of real-time journalistic criticism.
From a funder’s perspective, the project offers a good example of leverage and focus. CJR Daily doesn’t seek a wide audience, but instead looks to reach a relatively small number of senior editors and reporters who care about their craft. At a relatively low cost, the project is able to reach an influential target audience, who in turn, influences what most Americans read and hear in the media. It also offers an example of how we often build projects: We help with concepts and seed money, work closely with partners to get the project up and running, and then move on. Once the model is proven, others are able to support the effort.
- When a credible partner already exists, help it develop an initial project, and then let it run.
- Finding the right audience of influential leaders can lead to extraordinary programmatic leverage.