With the proliferation of social media and the ramping up of the 24-hour news cycle—a trend that has been growing in the past decade, but saw a major boost during the last presidential election—the sanctity of the news has been tampered with. It is easier now than ever to acquire news without utilizing reputable sources.
According to a report published by the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation in May, more than 40 percent of American adults get their news on Facebook. With the click of a button, news organizations can disseminate breaking news and reach a broader readership. However, that convenience also allows less reputable sources to disseminate their own information. Facts and figures can go completely unchecked on social media, which allows “fake news” to masquerade as real news. It is easy to mistake lies for the truth, which has the potential to harm our culture.
Robert Spicer, assistant professor of communications and theatre at Millersville University and academic advisor for the University’s student newspaper, The Snapper, believes we need to integrate information literacy or media literacy into college and even beginning in elementary classrooms in order to arm young people with the tools to identify the real, reputable news from the “fake news.”
“Sonia Livingstone [professor of social psychology and former head of the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science] has a widely cited definition of media literacy as ‘the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create messages across a variety of contexts.’ That’s the line of thinking that makes sense to me,” says Spicer. “We need to help students, and all citizens, better understand how media works, not just in terms of evaluating the information contained in a message but also in terms of how messages are created and disseminated.”
While some may say that college students who grew up within the digital revolution and have never known a world without the Internet or social media inherently understand the beast better than those that didn’t, Spicer necessarily doesn’t believe that is true.
“People of every age are potentially subject to deceptive practices in media,” says Spicer. Arming all citizens with more critical thought around this issue is a necessary step in breaking the cycle of “fake news” acquiring viral traction across the Internet.
“I do think ‘infoglut’ is a big part of the problem. We are inundated with information. I’ve heard some people compare it to trying to drink from a fire hose and I think that’s a good way to describe it,” says Spicer. “It does make it easier to spread disinformation and misinformation in the sort of ‘fog of war’ manner. When people are so overwhelmed with information it becomes difficult to keep track of it all, let alone fact check it.”
Within his own classes at Millersville, Spicer assigns projects that emphasize fact-checking and verifying sources. He begins his Press & Society class with an assignment that tasks students with finding a news story with multiple sources.
“This has resulted in some good discussion of discrepancies across news sources, factual errors in some places and how the same story can be told from different angles,” he says. “I’ve found it has resulted in a lot of good discussion about how the news is reported.”
This kind of open discussion about the media and the authenticity of the news should be taught at all levels, from elementary school through college, according to Spicer. At Millersville, he says he would like to see a media literacy course taught in the general education curriculum. There is currently a course on this topic in the English department.
In the meantime, there are several tips people can use to determine what is real and what is fake, to make them a more knowledgeable and discerning consumer of the media.
“If it seems too outrageous to be true, it probably isn’t true,” says Spicer. “Don’t let your partisan lens make it difficult for you to think critically about something. Try to go to multiple news sources. I find the best reporting on NPR and PBS. They are the most informative, the most even-handed and the least oriented toward infotainment and sensationalism.”