Newhouse faculty member discusses 'fake news'

By Cyndi Moritz

January 25, 2017
Photo of Tom Boll

Tom Boll was a newspaper journalist for 30 years and has been an adjunct professor in the Newhouse School since 2007, teaching newswriting as well as news literacy. One of his courses, COM 337, “Real News, Fake News: Literacy for the Information Age,” seems especially relevant these days given how much fake news has been in the real news.

Define fake news.

Strictly speaking, fake news is stories packaged and distributed in a way to resemble legitimate news stories. The difference: they are not supported by facts. At this point, I’m becoming less fond of the term “fake news.” Fake news sites like The Onion were meant for satire, amusement or entertainment. But today’s fake news is aimed at persuading people to adopt a particular point of view—or reinforcing that view—through deliberate lies and manipulation, which is propaganda.

Has the incidence of fake news risen in the past few months or years, or is it just more talked about recently? If so, why?

I don’t know if there’s anyone who has empirical data on this. Fake news has been around for a long while. Celebrities and politicians are, amazingly, alive today even though they were on their deathbeds years ago, according to the supermarket tabloids. It’s talked about more because it became intertwined with the presidential campaign and newsmakers raised it as an issue, and because of social media’s enormous influence in spreading it.

Why should people be concerned about fake news?

Because it’s not reliable information that they can base any decision on, it feeds people’s biases and it’s a waste of time. And Americans are concerned. A December 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans said that fake news creates a great deal of confusion about the facts of issues and current events. Another 24 percent said it causes some confusion. And a citizenry that’s confused or doesn’t have the facts it needs can’t make an informed choice when it goes to the polls.

Is there a way to control the penetration of fake news into the culture?

First off, we don’t want government censorship. But now that we have the president and other officeholders—elected and appointed—spreading this nonsense, and it’s a money-maker for others, I’d say it’s up to the public.

I asked my students last fall what can be done, and one of their ideas was to take a long-term approach: educate the young, so when they are of age, they have the critical thinking skills to know the difference between real and fake news. Just as students develop immunity against certain diseases through vaccinations, this approach would help inoculate them against falling for such baloney.

But as for the rest of us right now, we need to support the legitimate journalists who are doing the hard work of delivering to us “the best obtainable version of the truth,” as Carl Bernstein put it, every day. Let’s nourish true journalism and starve the impostors.

And one way to do that is not to be part of the problem. We are all publishers now when we post things that are public. So don’t post or share anything that’s not true or that you’re not sure is true. That’s irresponsible. There’s a saying that journalists live by: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. We have to adopt that as our guide now, so we don’t mislead anyone.

How can news consumers learn to distinguish fake news from real news?

By semester’s end, my students have a number of tools to do just that. Here are a few things to think about when consuming news: Does the author tell us how they know what they are telling us? Who are the people they’ve talked to? Do they identify them and give their credentials and are these people—sources—qualified to speak about the topic? And do these sources support their statements with facts? Does the story provide multiple perspectives or just one viewpoint? Is the information presented impartially or is it slanted? Are reputable news organizations reporting this also? Remember, always get your information from more than one news outlet.

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