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With misinformation on the march, The Wall Street Journal hopes to improve news literacy

As January’s violent assault on the US Capitol demonstrated, viral rumors and conspiracy theories can have deadly consequences. The Drum discovers how The Wall Street Journal is taking responsibility for its readers’ media literacy.

It is getting harder than ever for people to distinguish verified facts and objective journalism from opinion, propaganda and total fiction.

A recent study by the Media Insight Project revealed some concerning insights around readers’ understanding of news products, including the finding that half of its respondents in the United States were unsure what an ‘op-ed’ is.

As part of National News Literacy Week, which aims to promote the issue of literacy and the role of a free press, The Wall Street Journal developed a news literacy campaign that aimed to explain and articulate the important differences between its opinion and news sections.

Along with publishers like The Associated Press, BuzzFeed News, The New York Times, Vox Media and The Washington Post, WSJ also offered pro-bono ad space to further amplify the National News Literacy Week message.

Jonathan Wright, global managing director at Dow Jones, explains one of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that the publisher noticed a surge in demand for trusted news and information.

“We are also seeing a significant uptick in digital subscriptions. Of 3.22 million subscriptions — up 19% from 2019 — 2.46 million are digital-only, according to quarterly results released earlier this year,” he says.

“The labelling of news or opinion content is perhaps not as pronounced in a digital experience, compared to print, so we decided it is important that we advocate for news literacy and help our readers and future readers to better discern the difference between these two content types, which is where our own news literacy campaign comes in.”

He adds: “There is also a lot of work going on testing and refining the user experience so that it is clear what type of information readers are viewing. That can often be a challenge when users come to our site from ‘outside’ social media links and it’s something that our teams are working on and improving all the time.”

WSJ’s editorial pages and columns, though run separately from the news pages, are widely recognized to have a conservative bent. The publisher previously came under fire from its own news staff who were unhappy with their editorial colleagues' “lack of fact-checking and transparency”.

They took umbrage to an op-ed by former US vice president Mike Pence and were unhappy that “The Myth of Systemic Racism” cherry-picked statistics and filled with misinformation.

Wright insists its editors ensure there is no bias its news pages, especially around reporting on race, policing and finance, and points out the publisher has a long history and tradition of publishing and fact-checking two very distinct offerings covering news and opinion.

He explains that when journalists join WSJ, they each undergo a rigorous ethical and legal training program.

“Ethics and standards sit at the core of our news offering and are rigorously applied to any articles that are published on the news site. The role of WSJ’s Standards and Ethics department is to ensure that everything publishing - be that a video, infographic, article or podcast – is fair, accurate and balanced,” he explains.

“This is all about ensuring that readers know that when they come to WSJ, they are consuming news content that they can trust. Last year, the Reuters Institute found that WSJ was America’s most trusted national newspaper. We are proud of that status but we continue to work to maintain that trust.”

While there have been calls for publishers like WSJ to work closely with social media companies to better manage the spread of disinformation on issues like vaccines and climate change, Wright says the paper’s mission is to be ’the definitive source of truth’ for decision-makers.

“When the pandemic struck, WSJ created a full free-to-read segment on the homepage where readers could access reliable information that covered diverse issues such as safety advice for visiting grocery stores, to tech tips on how to best adapt to working from home. We believe that utility journalism such as this is critical to help people make informed decisions.”

“We are working with social media platforms to help ensure WSJ’s trusted news and information can reach these wider audiences through a series of content agreements that our parent company News Corp has signed in recent months.”