Making News Great Again: Separating Jokes from Journalism

Written by: Jessica Landgraf

Primary Source:  Green & White, January 25, 2017

Image courtesy of Pixabay

By Jessica Landgraf

There is no doubt that information is streaming, pinging, and tweeting at us from various devices as often as we are awake. It is hard to avoid being bombarded with a million voices as we check our social media accounts, watch the evening news, and check the morning newspaper, even when we are looking for a simple cat video to brighten our day. It’s unavoidable, and as the last few weeks have illustrated, although this most recent election cycle is now behind us, we have an epic challenge ahead of us in the form of fake news.

The Challenge of Speed

There is debate on what the real problem is: the fake news or the re-reporting of it by legitimate media outlets. Fake news is nothing new, but the past election cycle seems to have brought it to an all-time high. If you think about the speed at which a media outlet has to make the decision regarding whether to report on a story or chance losing “the scoop” it is understandable that there are times when even those news sources we trust get duped by a shiny headline. Equally understandable are our own actions of taking the “click-bate” of a juicy gossip story advertised on any number of websites we visit during the course of the day. But what happens when the amount of fake news reaches a level that people begin to question even the most plausible stories?

The Silver Lining

This past month there have been several news articles revealing and chronicling the ease with which a 23-year old liberal arts grad invented breaking news stories, posted them on a seemingly legitimate website he created, and sat back as the masses took it hook, line, and sinker.

You may now be asking yourself, “What could the silver lining in that possibly be?” The silver lining is that this open admission of guilt about creating and disseminating fake news can be looked to as a reminder that people are not just complaining about news that calls into question their convictions, or news that contradicts their opinion. There is news that is truly false and knowingly plays on the anxieties of the masses.

What Can We Do About It

In response to this growing problem, Facebook has begun an initiative to identify fake news and alert users when an article they are reading is of questionable veracity. However, even if you alert users to the possibility of a news article being fake, there can’t be a check put on everything. What can we do to educate society and make them better consumers that read with more of a critical eye?

The results of a Stanford study reported that our students from middle school through college could not correctly evaluate the credibility of information presented in tweets, comment posts, or articles catalyzing discussion in the education field around whether this is another area of literacy that needs to be addressed. As reported in a previous blog post, “teenagers (ages 13-18) spend 9 hours a day consuming entertainment media outside of school. Meanwhile, pre-teens (ages 8-12) spend a total of 6 hours a day doing so.” Given what the Stanford study found, and the sheer amount of media students are consuming every day, the importance of teaching them how to question the veracity of what they view becomes even more important.

There have been several articles discussing what schools and teachers can do to help their students become savvier consumers of news. Schools like Concord High in Concord, New Hampshire, far ahead of the curve in providing media literacy information to its students, began a required course for all 11th graders on media literacy. Teachers of this course see it as a way to provide students with the necessary skills to “be confident and in control of their own beliefs.”

Stanford’s own news-literacy lessons, piloted by teachers several dozen teachers, explore tasks such as:

  • Spotting native advertising (ads posing as articles)
  • Checking the authenticity of alarming images on Facebook
  • Investigating the sources of controversial claims
  • Seeking Corroboration

The Stony Brook University School of Journalism founded a Center for News Literacy and has been working with undergraduate students now for a decade. They have expanded, and now host summer teacher training workshops and provide resources and lesson plans for teachers online. Content from Stony Brook’s Digital Resource Center prepares secondary and college level students to:

  • Recognize the difference between journalism and other kind of information and between journalists and other purveyors of information
  • Separate news from opinion
  • Analyze the differences between assertion vs. verification and evidence vs. inference in news reports
  • Evaluate and critique news based on the quality of evidence presented along with the reliability of sources
  • Distinguish between news media bias and audience bias

Most recently The New York Times published an article with quick references for teachers to use in building lessons discussing not only how to spot fake news, but also to examine its consequences on our democracy.

Not Something to Put on the Back Burner

This is not an issue we can ignore. With increased access to digital media, instant updates, and a proliferation of unchecked sources, the ways in which we receive news are changing and with it so must our consumption practices. This is no longer about swaying minds and votes; fake news has recently incited violence in response to false claims. Possibly the most insidious of effects, as quoted from a recent New York Times article by Sabrina Tavernise, is that “Fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.”

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Jessica Landgraf

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