Professors discuss the ‘fake news conundrum’

PHOTO PROVIDED
Dr. Karen Kline and Dr. Sharon Stringer spoke at the event.

PHOTO PROVIDED Dr. Karen Kline and Dr. Sharon Stringer spoke at the event.

LOCK HAVEN — Dr. Karen Kline and Dr. Sharon Stringer — both from Lock Haven University’s Communication and Philosophy Department –presented a talk titled “Journalism and the ‘Fake News’ Conundrum” to interested members of the community last Tuesday at the Ross Library.

Dr. Kline discussed the cultural trends over the past 30 years that have blurred the lines between fake and factual news. In addition to the growth of cable TV and the number of cable news channels, we now have a continuous news cycle, which has produced an insatiable need for stories. To satisfy this need, the definition of what is newsworthy has been expanded to include “borderline” news that often verges on entertainment.

Beginning in the late 90s we also saw the growth of the Internet. Because many people began using the Internet as their major news source, we saw a reduction in traditional news sources, including newspapers in print. This in turn led to a decrease in investigative journalism, fewer editors and fact-checkers, fewer trained reporters and thus, a decline in the quality of the news.

Today, with the widespread use of the Internet, we’ve seen the rise of bloggers who develop websites to perpetrate their own ideas. Some of these sites are legitimate, but others are created to convey grievances, often stripped of their context to appear factual. Many of us rely primarily on social media for our news. Typically, this content is filtered, based on our preferences, and because we are able to self-select, we are receiving information that merely perpetuates our established worldviews. Of late we are seeing the effects of computer-generated “bots” that are able to radically accelerate partisan talking points, often spreading disinformation to billions of computers in a matter of seconds.

Moving to the topic of fake news specifically, Dr. Kline pointed out that many news shows, on both Fox and MSNBC, look like traditional newscasts, complete with desks and graphics, but in fact they are commentaries and should be understood as news presented from a partisan point of view. The term “fake” can be used to describe stories that are made up to deceive, stories containing partial truths, stories that are speculative and not based on evidence, and stories that you simply don’t agree with. The definition depends on where you stand.

Dr. Stringer made the point that the practices of real journalists have not changed over the years. In spite of the cultural changes we have experienced since the 1980s, journalists continue to seek the truth. The standards for the profession still prevail: a journalist should be accountable, should minimize harm, should act independently, and should consult several sources to ensure balance. She cited a study indicating that only 4% of us can tell the difference between real and fake news and urged all of us to find ways to become more discerning.

Here are the suggestions she offered.

r First, consider the source. Often we get news by reading only the headlines on our phones and miss the context and nuance that we would discover by reading further or by consulting another source.

r Check the author’s credibility. Look at the website on which the information is cited; does it provide links to sources or perhaps to mother-sites that display the writer’s political persuasion, either left or right? Is the information replicated elsewhere, on other reputable sites?

r Check to see if the coverage is thorough, or if the information has been cherry-picked.

r Check the date. Does the information take into consideration the latest findings or studies that may be relevant to a particular issue?

r Read carefully to determine whether the “news” might actually be a joke or satire.

r Ask the experts such as Factchecker.com and Snopes.com.

r And finally, check our own biases and recognize when a story might be “pushing our buttons.” If we learn to recognize fake news when it shows up on our screens, we can avoid falling for it and can prevent its perpetuation by simply clicking “delete.”

The talk was well attended, and the audience engaged in a spirited discussion throughout the evening. Watch the library’s schedule for further informative events.

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