Workshop delves into causes, solutions of ‘fake news’ & advocates for better media literacy

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We hear the term “fake news” a lot these days—everything from the president claiming that any negative news coverage of his administration is  “fake” to fanciful tales of sharks swimming through the flooded streets of Houston following Hurricane Harvey to a fictitious account of thousands of fraudulent ballots discovered in a warehouse in the run-up to last year’s election.

The term “fake news” seems to have lost some of its effect because it has taken on so many meanings. And yet the concept of “fake news” can have a lasting impact both on the audience that (sometimes unwittingly) shares and consumes it and on the democratic process itself.

The 13th annual Poynter/Kent State Media Ethics Workshop (held in September) delved into the topic of fake news. The daylong series of panels attempted to provide definition and refinement to the term “fake news” while seeking both to identify the problems it causes and to offer solutions that create a more information-critical journalistic community and citizenry. Panelists ranged from working journalists and editors to public relations practitioners, attorneys and educators.

The entire day is archived, and the workshop website even includes a lesson plan geared toward a high school audience. Each session is about 60 to 90 minutes long (except for the introductory and concluding remarks, which are much shorter). The video archive can be used either during class or for an out-of-class assignment. Below are a series of key takeaways and questions to drive students’ discussion.

Introductory Remarks (Kelly McBride, The Poynter Institute)

What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation? What are some examples of each (either those mentioned during the presentation or others students can think of or find)? Why is the distinction between those two terms so important?

McBride identifies seven forms of fake news. Define each type and provide examples.

How is fake news like a virus? Using that analogy, what are its causes, and what are some potential treatments and solutions?

Fake News and Media Credibility: Can Trust be Restored? (Mandy Jenkins, Storyful & Mizell Stewart, USA Today)

How does a lack of trust in the news media influence whether people decide to share fake news?

What responsibility do the news media have to debunk fake news after it’s shared or published? Can debunking efforts indadvertedly draw more attention to fictitious claims?

As the panelists noted, people do tend to trust their local reporters more than national media. Yet today there are fewer and fewer local reporters because of financial cutbacks. How can fake news gain a stronghold in an environment where some important issues go uncovered and critical questions go unasked?

Those who spread fake news know how the news ecosystem works, and they figure out how to manipulate it. Where does fake news often originate? How does it end up affecting coverage on major news networks or being shared on communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter?

The panelists urged journalists to get away from their desks, leave the newsroom and talk to real people when reporting. How can more interaction with the public help journalists stop the spread of fake news?

Fake News and the 2016 Election (Ryan Claassen, Kent State; Michael Shearer, GateHouse Media; Gregory Korte, USA Today; Indira Lakshmanan, The Poynter Institute)

From a legal standpoint, publishers—such as news organizations—are responsible for the information they disseminate. Are social media platforms “publishers” or merely “carriers” of the content others post? Either way, what ethical responsibility do they bear for the information they transmit, even though it’s being posted and shared by users?

How do both the business model and structural background of social media platforms “reward” those who share fake news?

Despite their best effort, journalists will make mistakes from time to time. Do mistakes, while regrettable, count as “fake news”? In an environment where so many identify anything they disagree with as “fake,” why is accuracy in reporting more important than ever?

How have social media changed the way politicians can relate to and interact with the public? What effects have social media had on journalists’ gatekeeping function (both in terms of what the public knows and how it shares information)?

Define and discuss the debate over whether the news media should cover the president’s tweets.

Keynote: The Real Deal about Fake News (David Folkenflik, NPR)

When politicians and pundits use false information, how is the public affected?

What does Folkenflik say the role of journalists is? How does fake news complicate that mission?

How does fake news force news organizations to discuss and defend their own legitimacy both in the eyes of the public and the government?

What did Folkenflik mean by saying it’s important for news organizations to “do their homework in public”? How can this be done?

Detecting B.S.: How to Tell What’s True in Today’s Contested Reality (Demaso Reyes, News Literacy Project; Kendra Albright, Kent State; Alicia Calzada, attorney)

How do purveyors of false information play on emotion to get readers to react without thinking?

Why is it so important to consider the source behind material one finds online?

What responsibility do individuals have to verify what they see before sharing it? Is it wise to share something with a comment like, “I don’t know whether this is true, but I’ll sure be angry if it is”?

We focus significant effort on helping young people develop media literacy, but adults definitely need some training as well. How can we help adults develop media literacy habits, especially those with such entrenched beliefs that they’re willing to trust and share anything that confirms what they already believe?

Why is context for photos so important? What effect does an app like Instagram have for appreciating and understanding a photo’s context?

The Internet has certainly made sharing photos and videos much easier. As a journalist seeking to republish such content as part of a newsworthy event, what are some considerations to make when looking for photos online or accepting photos from users?

When should students begin learning media literacy? How should it fit into the curriculum? Should this be a discrete subject, or should it be integrated into other classes?

Fake News and PR: What to Do When Your Client is the Target (Michele Ewing, Kent State & Chas Withers, Dix & Eaton)

What’s the fundamental difference between public relations and journalism? To whom do each profession’s ultimate loyalties lie? What are some similarities between the two?

Public relations practitioners advocate on behalf of a business or client, such as a non-profit organization. If someone peddles fake news about one of those clients—like falsely claiming he or she became sick from eating a product the client sells—what effect can such a falsehood have on that company or organization’s image?

Even though public relations professionals advocate on behalf of a client, why are credibility and truth-telling in all of their communications so important?

Wrap-up: Where Do We Go From Here? (McBride & Lakshmanan, Poynter)

Lakshmanan talked of how the journalism profession needs its own public relations campaign so the public better understands the work journalists do and the methods they use to keep the public informed. What are some key points that need to be addressed in such a campaign?

This post is the first in series coinciding with the third annual U.S. Media Literacy Week hosted by the National Association for Media Literacy Education. Check back throughout the week for more posts exploring important, timely media & news literacy issues and questions. 





Hurricane coverage raises questions about finding the truth amid disaster

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The images from Hurricane Harvey last week were horrific. Scores of people were left stranded in rising water, homes were destroyed and others’ livelihoods were washed away in seconds. As with any natural disaster of that magnitude, the storm became a focal point for local, national and even global news coverage.

And the coverage was everywhere. It included everything from real-time updates that provided life-saving information to harrowing stories of rescues and reunions among the displaced. And this whole cycle is about to be repeated again this weekend as Hurricane Irma takes aim at Florida.

A natural disaster is always a painful experience. Capturing that pain, while an important documentary function of the news media, can be tough for survivors and victims who become unwitting subjects of the news. Last week, the Columbia Journalism Review highlighted several ethical dilemmas in the coverage. Both this article and CJR’s weekly podcast, The Kicker, devoted time to delving into those questions.

Discussing these matters can help students grapple with the real consequences of how the media present facts and depict the subjects featured in the news. Ultimately, they can better learn how to make decisions about coverage in their own publications.

lootfindWords matter: How the news media describe something can have a profound impact on how the audience understands and interprets what they see. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, these two images circulated online noting how the black man in the first photo was described as “looting” while the white couple in the second photo were described as “finding” the items they were carrying. As this story in the New York Times indicates, each photographer did offer justification about why he each felt those respective word choices were justified.

Use of the word “looting” arose again during coverage of Harvey when ABC reporter Tom Llamas tweeted that he alerted police to possible looting.

What’s the distinction between the two terms? Is one more appropriate than the other? Is the term “looting” ever justified following a disaster? What if people were taking luxury items like jewelry or TV sets that aren’t necessary for survival?

What proportion of disaster coverage should be focused on such questions? Does a preponderance of coverage about alleged criminal behavior following a disaster suggest that such activities are more prevalent than they really are? What effect can that have on the audience and their perceptions of reality?

Involvement in the story: Llamas’s actions (alerting the police) involved him in the story. His actions had some impact on how the events unfolded. This was even more true when a television crew from a Houston TV station rescued a driver caught in raging water.

Generally, reporters seek to remain out of the story by serving as bystanders and observers. Is there ever a point when that rule becomes ethically unacceptable? Some will make the distinction of whether it’s necessary to choose between being a human being and a journalist. Is that a false choice? Is it enough to argue that the circumstances of a natural disaster mandate a different set of guidelines to abide by?

Telling the truth vs. minimize harm: This video of a CNN reporter interviewing a clearly distraught woman fleeing the floodwaters drew criticism. As noted in the CJR podcast, a healthy tension exists between capturing emotions, experiences and reactions of those affected but also not appearing to exploit their pain, grief and exile for professional fame, monetary gain for the news organization or a spike in ratings. People in such situations are vulnerable and need to be treated with care and respect.

What should the reporter have done? Stopped the interview all together? Gained consent before going live on air? Taken time to establish a relationship? It’s ethically necessary to cover the story, but how you go about it can have a significant impact on those who are subjects of the news, especially the vulnerable.

Disaster reporting is wrought with numerous other dilemmas affecting both the subjects of the stories and the reporters themselves. I outlined some of those in a previous post.








Firing of WSJ reporter reminder of need for more ethics training in student journalism

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal fired a reporter who violated the company’s policies by engaging in a business deal with a source he was assigned to cover. The reporter’s action constituted a conflict on interest, whereby he engaged in conduct that might compromise (or give the perception thereof) his ability to act as an independent source of information for his audience.

His greatest allegiance might not have been to the truth, but rather to making the subject of the story look good to enhance the business deal he allegedly entered into.

As a profession, we’ve chosen to adhere to certain standards and values to ensure our primary obligation is to seeking the truth in all instances, not to our own personal gain or biases. And sometimes, that’s tougher to do than it would seem. Journalists are human themselves. They have opinions, perspectives and beliefs that shape their view of the world, just like everyone else.

Yet, the ethical demands of the profession to independently seek the truth mandate they find ways to insulate themselves from allowing those biases to affect their job. This includes maintaining some distance from the sources they cover. Journalists–and the organizations that employ them–must grapple with tough questions like whether journalists should be involved in political activity or openly advocate for one side in a public conflict or controversy.

And how does this play out in scholastic journalism? In a school environment–a seeming microcosm of society–everyone is much closer, and roles tend to blend together. Students, for their own development, need to be involved in school life, clubs and sports. But how do we put up sufficient barriers to ensure stories are receiving proper coverage? Is it enough to insist that a member of a given club or sport not be assigned to cover those activities? Or are there additional considerations to make?

Ensuring that students understand conflicts of interest and how to avoid them is a paramount lesson for student journalists so they better understand the value of the truth. Any publication serious about developing its ethical fitness should understand what circumstances constitute conflicts of interest and invest the time in learning to avoid them.

As with all ethics training, it starts with a healthy dose of discussion to help students understand the gravity of this issue. Talk about case studies and stories that appear in the news. Use that dialogue to develop and refine a staff ethics policy so reporters know how to handle specific situations in which these issues might arise and also to drive discussion between editors and reporters.

Below are some resources to help drive the discussion:
Ethics code from NPR
Ethics code from RTDNA
Ethics code from SPJ
Case studies from the Center for Journalism Ethics (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Potential problem areas for conflicts of interest from NYU School of Journalism



Altered yearbook photo sparks questions about truth in reporting

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Earlier this month, a New Jersey high school was in the headlines because several students reported that “pro-Donald Trump” logos on the shirts they wore when sitting for their school pictures were mysteriously absent from the photos printed in the yearbook.

The act raised quite a stir, and the yearbook faculty adviser was disciplined. According to news reports, students were not involved in editing the photos. The school will also issue re-printed books with the original photos. This story has highlighted a series of deep legal and ethical questions.

First, if the decision to alter the photos was made by school faculty, this is an overreach of authority and can constitute censorship. Faculty advisers (in this case, state actors) cannot arbitrarily stifle speech simply because they disagree with it, especially when students are engaging in speech that is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection (in this case, showing support for a candidate in an election). It should be noted that little to no reasoning has emerged publicly as to why the editing took place.

If it were made by students (though it doesn’t appear to be), then their decision-making power could be insulated from censorship concerns surrounding an abridgment of the students’ First Amendment rights. Students, as non-state actors, have wider latitude over editorial content.

But looking at this issue more broadly, it doesn’t matter who edited the photos or who made the decision to do so. This story raises ethical concerns that far outweigh the legal issues. First, no matter who made the decision, the most important question here is “What was their journalistic purpose?” Why would they choose to airbrush material from a photo?

Altering photos (i.e. altering the truth) is always of paramount concern. Changing the photos’ content changes the reality of the situation. The bottom line is that changing even small details like these in a photo creates a work of non-fiction, a paramount sin in the journalism world. Viewers trust that what they are seeing is the truth as it happened, not an interpretation that fits the photographer’s worldview.

Altered photos warp the sense of trust viewers place in what they are seeing. Yearbooks are a form of journalism. As such, they must operate under the principles of ethical decision making akin to all forms of journalism. Editing photos simply because one disagrees with a political statement is no more appropriate than removing cords or light fixtures to enhance the photo’s aesthetic appeal.

Award-winning photo provides valuable ethics lesson

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The image below received the Photo of the Year award in the World Press Photo contest. The photo was captured by Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici, and it showed an off-duty police officer seconds after he shot and killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in December 2016.

ap_16355526985677_custom-67075110a0eb047700a08affd6231f90f3ea4647-s800-c85 The jurors who selected the award were torn. On one hand, they wanted to reward the fine work and bravery of the photographer who risked his own life to capture a dramatic, newsworthy moment that the world needed to see. On the other, some on the jury didn’t want to reward this criminal act with publicity and notoriety.

This post from the New York Times Lens blog provides some additional insight.

Did the jury make the right call? What are the ethical issues in play here?


Workshop explores social justice journalism

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Recently, the 12th annual Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop explored the topic of social justice in journalism and reporting. The previous workshops featured lively discussion and debate from journalists, experts, researchers and others connected to the respective topic under consideration. This year was no exception.

Panels included discussions about the Flint (Mich.) water crisis, the shootings both at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and of five police officers in Dallas, immigration, and safe spaces on college campuses. The workshop website includes several lesson plans geared toward high school teachers and scholastic media advisers.

I’ve also provided a few discussion questions that correspond to each video for advisers and teachers to use in class. Each session can be accessed in the archives link on the workshop’s website. The archives also include recordings of previous workshops.

Why this is Important?

What is social justice journalism? How do students define it? Why is it important?
How have economic/business interests affected journalistic decision-making for or against social justice reporting?

The Internet has enabled the average person to publish without gatekeepers. How has this affected the ability to bring More

Disaster coverage essential skill for student journalists

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The tornado outbreak in the Deep South last Monday had special resonance for me. As I sat in my living room on a rainy, cool evening in Northeast Ohio, I anxiously watched weather reports on TV and online that showed a line of powerful thunderstorms containing confirmed sightings of tornadoes headed straight for the home of some of my relatives who live near Madison, Miss., in the suburbs north of Jackson.

I was relieved when I got the “all-clear” signal from my family in the area, but the storm did, indeed, pass right over their neighborhood. Adjoining subdivisions did sustain some damage. Areas on the south side of Jackson sustained considerable damage, and other parts of the region lay in ruins.

Watching the coverage and seeing the aftermath reminded me of the importance of teaching students the best practices for covering disasters in their community.

As a source of local news, student journalists provide an important documentation function that describes events that affect both the school and wider community. If a large natural or man-made disaster strikes the community, it’s important for the student news outlet to cover it. Plus, with the integration of digital technologies today, student journalists can provide breaking news coverage through multiple platforms even if their print magazine or newspaper is only distributed once every few weeks.

Breaking news situations are chaotic by nature. Information is at a premium, and those in the know (law enforcement, medical personnel, government officials) might either be reluctant to share sensitive information or might not have all the facts themselves. It’s important to exercise good judgment about what information to pass on to consumers.

Public radio’s “On the Media” program created a breaking news handbook for news consumers to aid the audience in deciphering credible content amid a swirl of often conflicting information. Craig Silverman, editor of the blog “Regret the Error” at the Poynter Institute, edited the “Verification Handbook: A Definitive Guide to Verifying Digital Content for Emergency Coverage.” The book, compiled by practicing journalists across the globe, provides considerations for verifying information in a hectic environment as well as vetting user-generated material. Both are excellent classroom resources.

Crowdsourcing can be a wonderful tool. After all, no news organization can be everywhere at all times, especially during a breaking news event. However, in an effort to get their time in the spotlight, some in the crowd resort to manipulation and fabrication—that tornado funnel that looks just a little too perfect or that heart-warming photo of a man pulling his dog through a flooded street might be real, but they might either be the work of a skilled “Photoshopper” or from another event entirely.

Disasters and other traumatic events can leave a lasting effect on both the journalists covering the situation as well as those affected by the events themselves. Ethical guidelines mandate that special care should be taken when covering disaster victims. These people may have just lost their homes or even loved ones. It’s important for journalists to balance their need for truthful, powerful reporting about a matter of public significance while maintaining their duty to minimize harm to those affected. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University provides excellent resources for journalists and educators in this regard.

Teaching about covering disasters also presents the perfect opportunity to further news literacy efforts in the classroom. After all, forcing students to confront the uncomfortable realities of news reporting (even if they never cover an actual disaster) allows them to expand their base of knowledge in determining credible from non-credible information and to appreciate the ethical dilemmas journalists face.

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