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. 





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