Reflecting on ‘Audible Reckoning’

A couple of months ago, the Brookings Institute released an exhaustive study examining the false claims, misleading claims and unsubstantiated claims that are shared in political podcasts. The researcher, Valerie Wirtschafter, shared her rationale for this focus, writing:

Once written off as a dying medium, podcasting has undergone rapid growth and monetization, while largely avoiding content moderation and regulatory debates. Today, nearly 41% of Americans listen to podcasts monthly, and almost one in four Americans look to podcasts for their news. Globally, the medium is projected to reach an audience of 504.9 million by 2024, while ad revenue in the United States is expected to double between 2022 and 2024, jumping from $2 billion to $4 billion.

As an avid podcast listener (and working podcast host), I was honestly surprised by the listener data. 41% of Americans listen to podcasts monthly? That means a lot of the people you know are probably listening to some podcast regularly. But how trustworthy and accurate is the information being shared in those podcasts? To investigate this question, Wirstschafter collected over thousands of episodes of prominent political podcasts series in January 2022. After collecting transcripts for each of the episodes, Wirstschafter fact checked claims made in the podcasts by looking at PolitiFact, Snopes, and other reliable news sources. Reporting on the findings, Wirstschafter wrote:

“Drawing on data from 36,603 episodes produced by 79 prominent political podcasters, 17,061 evaluations, and 184 key terms and phrases, this research documented the spread of unsubstantiated or false claims across the political podcasting ecosystem. The analysis found that:

  • One out of every 20 episodes (1,863 episodes) in the dataset shared at least one unsubstantiated or false claim. 
  • More than 70% of all the podcasters (56 series) in the sample shared at least one unsubstantiated or false claim; 15% (12 series) shared 50 or more such claims.”

Before anyone starts pointing their fingers at their strange Aunt Betty and the outrageous beliefs she shared at a holiday dinner, it is important to note that the spread of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims is happening across the political spectrum. It’s happening in popular conservative and liberal podcasts alike. The data, however, showed that it happens more frequently on one end of the political divide than the other, but I’ll let folks read and interpret that stuff on their own. Instead, I’d like to focus on what this means for educators and teacher educators. Before I do that, let me take a slight detour.

In a recent episode of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell interviewed Michael Specter, the author of the upcoming book Higher Animals: Vaccines, Synthetic Biology, and the Future of Life. In the episode, Specter discussed the potential smallpox outbreak that happened in 1947 in New York City. After discovering that a person infected with smallpox had recently traveled on public transportation, city officials lodged a massive campaign to vaccinate millions of people before the disease could spread out of control. In the end, only two people passed away from smallpox, averting a city-wide epidemic. Specter credits the health campaign’s success with the fact that New Yorkers in 1947 didn’t have “to deal with the type of misinformation that has now become so familiar.”

The challenge is clear. We’re being bombarded by false claims, unsubstantiated claims, and misinformation daily. While the Brookings Institute focused on podcasts, I’m confident that misinformation is being spread on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, or wherever else that our students (and Aunt Betty) get their media. We need to better prepare our students (and ourselves) for navigating the misinformation onslaught they’re experiencing, regardless of the media platform they’re using or the political .

I don’t necessarily have the solution, but I know that teachers need to play a role. We need to model critical thinking and offer opportunities for our students to evaluate claims and examine evidence. While science classrooms seem like a logical place for this to happen, it needs to happen in other classrooms, too. We need to figure this out. The fate of humanity may depend on it.


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