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Battling ‘fake news’ and misinformation with The Conversation

Queen’s researchers reach millions of readers via the online fact-based, news platform.

Scott White speaks to Queen's researchers about The Conversation during a workshop in 2019.
Scott White speaks to Queen's researchers about The Conversation during a workshop in February 2019. (University Communications File Photo)

In the era of “fake news” and rampant misinformation, global citizens are searching for fact-based media they can trust. With a winning combination of academic and journalistic rigor, The Conversation, an online independent news and publication, has become a trusted source to mobilize knowledge to the general public.

Since the launch of the Canadian affiliate site in 2017, Queen’s researchers have been leading contributors to The Conversation Canada. In 2020, as the world turned to university experts for trusted information about COVID-19, The Conversation became an increasingly important vehicle for our academics and researchers to share their knowledge to a broader audience. In 2020 alone, Queen’s articles reached over 1.9 million readers worldwide.

Queen’s engagement with The Conversation in 2020
• 85 articles published
• 1.9 million reads (+18% audience growth from 2019)
• 79 authors (+27% increase in authors from 2019)
• 75% of Queen’s readers are international
• 45/85 articles in 2020 provided research analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our health, economy, environment and wellbeing
• 51% of 2020 authors identify as female
• 21% of articles were written or co-written by graduate students

Recently, the Gazette spoke to Scott White, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Conversation Canada, about the importance of public trust in media, what made 2020 a landmark year for the platform, and the impact of the partnership with Queen’s.

What differentiates The Conversation from other media outlets?

The Conversation is a new model that combines academic and journalism expertise. All of our authors are academics and researchers from Canadian universities, and they work directly with a team of experienced newsroom editors. The result is a unique form of explanatory journalism that is read by millions of people every year.

How is The Conversation important in establishing public trust? Why is this important in the current media landscape?

The “fake news” phenomenon has become a toxic element of today’s society. The term is wielded by politicians who don’t like stories that expose problems with their leadership or policies. But there is also actual “fake news” spread mostly through social platforms that is intended to deceive. The public needs a place to turn for trusted, fact-based articles to inform them on some of the most important aspects of their lives – be it health, science, technology or social issues. Our authors are experts in their field and our stories contain hyperlinks to academic journals that demonstrate research on the subject of the article.

Why do you think 2020 was The Conversation Canada’s most successful year-to-date?

Two main reasons: People were desperate for trusted information from experts regarding the pandemic. Not only did they want the latest on research, but they needed practical advice – are two cloth masks better than one for preventing the spread of COVID-19? How often should I wash my mask? The other main reason for the large increase in our readership related to the U.S. political crisis. The polarized politics of the United States was a worldwide phenomenon and many of our political articles were among the most-read stories of 2020.

You often refer to the “duplication” effect of writing for The Conversation. How does this work?

Everything we publish is under Creative Commons license. That means any publication – from CNN to a local community newspaper – can (and does) republish our stories free of charge. About one third of our views in 2020 came from republishers. But beyond that, about 60 per cent of our authors report that they have been contacted by other media outlets as a result of the article they wrote for The Conversation. That may result in being interviewed by newspapers, radio or TV or even being contacted by policy makers and government partners.

Queen’s is a founding member of The Conversation Canada and has leveraged the platform for research promotion. What is Queen’s doing that is unique from what you see at other institutions?

About three quarters of the stories we publish are based on ideas submitted to us by academics and researchers. (The rest come from our newsroom, where we seek out an expert to write on a specific topic.) We get so many great “pitches” from Queen’s academics who are supported by the communications team.

Queen’s was an “early adopter” in terms of promoting our platform to their researchers. We’ve done a number of workshops with Queen’s academics to explain our publishing platform and to encourage story pitches. It seems to us that The Conversation has become an ingrained part of Queen’s knowledge mobilization and research promotion strategies and, looking at the numbers and engagement, it is clearly working.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles or find out more information about the platform can contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.