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Addressing issues involved in fake news

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According to a study in a Pew Research Center report released recently, 88 percent of U.S. adults say they believe fake news is causing either a “great deal of confusion” or at least “some confusion” when it comes to people’s understanding of current events.

Categorically false lies-posing-as-breaking-news-stories often start as reportorial problems. Scholastic journalists can begin to address this issue by addressing the following problems:

  • Lack of credibility (sources, information and author)
  • Insufficient crap detection skills/no training in truth seeking
  • Absence of identified sources
  • Incomplete information
  • Unclear or unknown author intent (as in satire/low harm fake news)
  • Lack of context and explanation (of information and meaning of terms/concepts)
  • Confirmation bias/filter bubbles/discrediting of mainstream media
  • Inability to recognize native advertising

The Pew report also showed:
• 23 percent of Americans say they shared fake news at some point
• 14 percent reported they shared a story knowing it was false
• 45 percent said they were somewhat confident they could identify (39 percent said very confident) completely made up articles

Based on exercises I did with journalism students, and on a a recent national study, we think they might be overconfident.

Each year I would present journalism students with fake story assignments  to see if they would think critically through story information. Students did not catch the questionable information, even though they had obvious opportunities to ask questions that would show the assignment’s flaws – and had been told at the beginning of the year we would do an assignment like this.

For example, the students interviewed the principal and assistant principal about the introduction of drug-sniffing ferrets that would go through student lockers at night because of recent evidence of increased drug use in school.

Ferrets, of course, could work through lockers more easily than dogs.

Administrators gave students detailed information about the need for such searches and how the ferrets would operate. They also shared information about a training center for ferrets in a nearby community and studies that showed why ferrets were better than dogs. They included a phone number so students could follow up with trainers. They shared the name of the police department contact.

The story, of course, was completely fake.

The phone number did not work. No such study existed and the local police contact had no knowledge of such a switch from drug-sniffing dogs to ferrets.

Fake news is not new. What is new is its ability to subvert the critical thinking abilities of even more people, especially students, because of the internet and social media, as a recent study showed.

“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: ‘bleak,'” the study reported.

From middle school to college students, the study’s authors reported, “we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.”

And these findings  might not reflect the real problem in schools where censored media produce fake news.

The Pew report also asked who its study respondents think should be responsible for stopping fake news. Briefly, respondents listed the public, the government and elected officials, search engines and social media bear responsibility.

Solutions should start in journalism classrooms.

Call it news literacy, crap detection or just critical thinking skills, solutions lie with those students who either produce, evaluate or consume information. They then, as adults, might not make mistakes  similar to those see in the Pew study.

We have no magic promise of internet filters to quickly tell us what is true and what is to be avoided. Those filters have not worked and may have contributed to the problems.

What we do have is a journalism foundation of news values and ethical guidelines.

And that is the subject of the next look at fake news.

Resources:
• Ten questions for fake news
Skills and strategies: Fake news v real news: determining the reliability of sources
• Truth, truthiness, triangulation: A news literacy toolkit for a “post truth” world
To fix fake news, look yellow journalism
 Fake news? Bias? How colleges teach students not to be duped
• Flawed news is not fake news

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