How MU Professors are Teaching Students to be Smart in a Time of Misinformation
By Kate Hartman
The term “fake news” is so new to the everyday American vernacular that it isn’t included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary yet. In an article published on the dictionary’s website titled, “The Real Story of ‘Fake News,’” the phrase has been identified as a “word we’re watching.”
While the term may not be official in the eyes of the dictionary, it is being used at water coolers nationwide. The term actually has roots dating back to the end of the 19th century; but with the 2016 election, it gained national prominence.
Along with this phrase, a proliferation of inaccurate and uncited stories and a general distrust in the media has also taken hold. It’s a trend that the whole country is dealing with, but it poses particular challenges on college campuses where the goal is to educate and prepare students for professional pursuits.
Professors across the globe must teach the fundamentals of responsible media consumption, which includes verifying sources and cross-checking facts; and instill a sense of ethical journalistic, public relations and communications skills in their students. Professors are teaching their students to be hyper vigilant when creating their own content—while also being hyper vigilant themselves in the classroom.
Millersville University professors are taking the challenge head on; acknowledging that what they’re seeing in their classrooms is a byproduct of a larger cultural trend and doing what they can to teach their students to be smart with the Internet.
“In our classes, we have always addressed ethics and fact finding. I think students just thought that’s what professors bugged them about,” says media and broadcasting professor Dr. Stacey Irwin. “I think there’s a new realization [of what we mean] when we say find the source. I think students get it more concretely now than they would have a few years ago.”
Today’s students grew up with the internet. “They’re very good digital consumers,” Irwin admits, but their aptitude with the Internet can mean they prioritize shares and interaction over concrete facts.
“[Students] tend to find something they agree with and then push it out there, and then find out later it’s not true and feel a little guilty,” says Irwin, who is the faculty advisor for the campus television station MUTV-99. “It’s almost like a trigger finger on the share button.”
Social media has become the great equalizer of information. It is more difficult now than ever to tell who created the stories you see buzzing around Facebook or Twitter, and what their angle might be. Is it an editorial or is it commentary? What does the person who produced it want you to believe?
As Dr. Frank Bremer, history professor emeritus, says about today’s society, “Anyone’s opinion or interpretation is as good as anyone else’s. That’s very dangerous because you’re getting away from objective reality.”
Newspapers have always had their biases ever since the creation of the press. In the beginning though, the biases were more blatant before the trend moved toward no visible biases at all. Now, the culture is swinging back toward bias, which are displayed proudly by media outlets.
“If you go far enough back—certainly in the early days of press in the 17th century—there were newspapers and they tended to be very partisan. They presented a particular point of view rather than trying to appear impartial,” says Bremer, who taught at MU for 40 years. “[They would publish] spurious attacks on Thomas Jackson or against John Adams or on Andrew Jackson. The press focused on negative things including calling him a bigamist.”
Today, news outlets display their political leanings, and consumers tend to flock to sources that reinforce their already held beliefs. The danger in that is people are not hearing or tolerating differing opinions.
“I do think on both sides there is a little bit more of a tendency to blur the distinction between facts and opinion,” says Bremer. “The average person increasingly gets their views from looking at one way it is presented. There aren’t a whole lot of people who spend half their time watching FOX and half their time watching MSNBC, and trying to figure out where the truth lies.”
Critical thinking is necessary when consuming media. That may have always been true, but it is more vital now that ever. Professors are stressing the importance of sourcing stories to know where the information originates.
Dr. Robert Spicer, communications professor and faculty advisor of the student-run newspaper, The Snapper, has crafted several assignments that push his classes to explore sourcing.
“In my Press in Society class, which has all majors in it, one of the assignments is the ‘What’s in the News’ assignment,” he explains. “Each student is assigned a day where they have to come in and give us a news story. They are required to find three to five different places that report on the same story.
“Sometimes the students say all three reported exactly the same; there’s no piece of info that’s in one and not the others. Other times a student will say source one reported x, source two reported y and another reported z,” Spicer continues. “You can begin to see how different sources give different pieces of information based on specifics of the case. Then we pull out why we think those differences are there…That can reflect on ideological blinders.”
While some consumers are getting their news from only one or two sources, others are turning away from main stream media all together, instead believing that all media sources are liars. The term ‘fake news’ can now cover any news source whose reports you don’t believe. Dr. Spicer says that’s dangerous.
“One of the big key things that I try to drive home to them is not to think of the media as a single entity but as a collection of many different entities,” he says. “Part of the problem is the use of that word—the media. Not just for students but for all Americans, it gets everyone into this mindset that there’s a singular entity out there that can’t be trusted. It creates this illusion that cynicism is the same as critical thought. They trick themselves into thinking if I don’t trust the media and because I’m questioning everything, I am being a critical thinker. I won’t be tricked into thinking something that isn’t true. They really just think everything is a lie and then they end up with nothing.”
Professors don’t want their students turning away from the media. Instead, they are encouraging them to really examine what is being reported and why. Students have to work harder, and so do professors.
“I have to be held to a very high standard,” says Irwin. “It can be overwhelming checking what I say. I always tell [my students] where I got [the information] from. I have to talk the talk but also walk the walk.”
In the era of ‘fake news,’ any media consumer needs to understand that the truth lies somewhere between the polarizing ends of the political spectrum. That yes, there are false stories being touted as truth, and it falls to the reader to pick through and find the facts. As Irwin says “this is the new normal,” and being a responsible consumer boils down to media literacy.
“We have to think of it differently, get our information differently,” says Irwin. “Teaching people this can’t start early enough.”