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Research & Scholarship

Fake News

February 20th, 2017 by Michael Pasqualoni

Defining Fake News:

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: Everything else is public relations.”

George Orwell wrote that. Except that he did not. Source attributions linking the statement to Orwell are omnipresent across many websites, and even within some academic journals. Yet, a connection is not established to Orwell having ever said or written it. The confident repetitive alignment of the quotation with Orwell is itself emblematic of the type of inauthenticity, reinforced by viral digital repetition, that typifies the fake news problem so dominating our headlines and airwaves these days. We see a new U.S. Presidential administration weaponizing the very phrase itself, ‘fake news.’ And doing so with boldness that seems intent on devaluing that intellectual property, or, at minimum, perhaps encouraging all to see the news-scape as a hopelessly overgrown thicket of weeds, past its prime or bound to slip into foreclosure.

Is this emergence of fake news we see bouncing around social networks all that unexpected? Perhaps it as likely as the seasons in a world where earlier forms of news, New York based late 19th Century yellow journalism for example, had profited by its approach to mixing fact and folly, or where supermarket tabloids in the U.S. have had loyal readerships for well over half a century, or where in radio Mr. Orson Welles in 1938 with his War of the Worlds radio show hoax showed how genuine fakeness can seem, when crafted by theatrically adept broadcast artisans tapping into America’s primal fear of aliens.

Newhouse School Professor of Newspaper & Online Journalism, Tom Boll, discusses a definition of fake news, referring to it as aimed at persuading people to adopt a particular point of view—or reinforcing that view—through deliberate lies and manipulation, which is, as he reminds, propaganda. Tom’s teaching responsibilities at Syracuse University include the course COM 337: Real News Fake News. In reply to the question of how news consumers can distinguish real from fake news, Tom Boll advises that we can ask questions as we probe our reading of that type of news reporting, such as: 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?

Tyrone Heppard, writing for the Cortland Standard newspaper in December of 2016 offered a concise graphical table regarding assessing a news story’s credibility. Tyrone shares wise news reading advice such as: Get past the headline (aka: Read articles in full!), identify ‘who wrote this?’, make sure sources are reliable (Does the news report indicate sources for its information?), look for bias in the choice of language and written point of view in the news report, double-check other media’s coverage of identical facts, and remember that fact-checker services do exist, such as snopes.com or factcheck.org.

Last December, Colorado Patent Attorney, Vanessa Otero, used her Facebook account to share a widely commented upon news sources visualization table, cross referencing measures of publication partisanship on one axis against standards of professional journalistic quality on another, presenting a fascinating view of the range of information sources with which readers contend, extending from longstanding mainstream sources like New York Times, Associated Press or the BBC to sensationalist or other clickbait driven outlets like Breitbart News or Infowars:

Vanessa Otero 2016 News Sources Chart

Source: Vanessa Otero 2016 News Sources Chart, via Facebook, Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. Note: Version depicted is edited slightly in comparison to original, as explained on author’s wordpress site. See also author’s post entitled the reasoning & methodology behind the chart.

Avoiding an Advertising Response to Fake News:

“I don’t know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher; I just try everything I can think of.”
– Charles Foster Kane – dialogue from Citizen Kane (1941)– motion picture written and directed by Orson Welles. Visit the YouTube clip from Citizen Kane- How to Run a Newspaper (2 mins).

Otherwise well-meaning work on the topic of fake news one sees flowing from the learning environments of schools, universities and libraries risks missing the point, if, for example, a chief reaction to what is often a mixture of insurgent half-truth and downright disinformation campaigning, falls back purely upon a defensive advertising response. And by defensive advertising response, I refer to libraries and other educational institutions using these legitimately troubling dust-ups over news authenticity as opportunities less for introspection and probing analysis, and more so for trotting out formal and informal advertising keen on making students and faculty aware that the informational broccoli and spinach can be found in abundance at your local library. An abundance of riches in the form of well-established sources of news reporting that sprout from well curated library databases, archives, shelves and microfilm reels.

Do not misunderstand. Libraries should use this opportunity of surges in zero calorie junk food news reporting to remind, and reminding some for the first time perhaps, of our long association with collecting, curating and preserving, in both print and digital form, vast quantities of current and historical newspaper journalism. But let’s be clear. And our historians know this well. These so-called first rough drafts of history that are our news pages are referred to as such for good reason. Those who panic over some of the more egregious instances of “fake news” we all have endured recently should avoid transmogrifying sets of competitor publications, flawed and human chronicles, into precious museum pieces of almost religious stature. This has long been one of the risks inherent in cultural institutions whose mission is preservation and emphasis on the “artifact.” It is the risk of abstracting even the most high quality cultural expressions away from complex lived experience and into various corridors of the museum of things, each with their well-mounted explanatory caption.

Shall We Collect Fake News? and Risks of Lists:

“Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.” – Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America – Chapter VI, Of The Relation Between Public Associations and the Newspapers.

My own efforts, together with colleagues, to make our campus aware of some wonderful digital NY Times access available for free to Syracuse University students and faculty or to news databases every student should know has certainly seemed spurred onward in this heated environment, which wrestles with the subject of fake news. But the response of thoughtful scholars, journalists, and citizens really should not be limited to commercial style endorsements of specific news titles alone. Frankly, I think we should spend at least co-equal time probing the literal disinformation flow itself, delving into the content, sources and cultures that have buoyed this recent spate of inauthentic news. Something along the lines of Ms. Otero’s analysis seems a promising track. Particularly true, because some of the individuals associated with organizations Otero’s chart presents as highest on the disreputable scale nonetheless wield significant influence. Thus, one of the immediate challenges for librarianship on this topic of fake news is: Will we collect it? Should we collect it?

Using current discourse about so-called “Fake News” to mount advertising responses that spread the word about access points at nearby libraries to various established journalistic sources of information is noble, but it also may be a good way to obscure tougher explorations into why some at times quite sensationalized information sources have taken hold with such large percentages of the citizenry. What perhaps worries me most about the bibliographic tendency to respond to such complex social problems with pat lists of our advertised “specials,” is that can oversimplify some of the critical thinking capacities we would otherwise like to be encouraging in students, and in all citizens. In library environments especially, let’s promote concepts like compare, criticize, and curate as much as we enable our typical urge to want to catalog. To encourage informationally and digitally literate citizens to thrive in our society, we can indeed go beyond a “required reading list” approach. Mind you, I make that claim knowing full well that I recall a former Library dean of mine telling his staff that any librarian worth their salt should religiously read two publications, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times.

Advertising a checklist approach to source evaluation runs the risk of creating drones and not deliberate citizens. That’s the faculty member, librarian, or student who upon grading some references to outside source material goes thru a process of indicating: Article is sourced from the Washington Post? Check for the good. Author has been a journalist with that publication for twelve years? Check for the good. Article is sourced from a Skateboarder’s Blog? Perhaps check for the not so good. Librarians know such source evaluation checklists well. Too well. We should strive to insure students do not see them as sufficient for higher order thinking.

So in this effort not to let the struggle against fake news have us turn “real” news into precious angelic artifacts, while honoring our esteemed sources, we need to, as further example, keep the focus on teaching our students to pay attention to what those venerable platforms edit out. The stories that are not told. That advice can apply as equally to scholarly journal publications as it does news publications. It can apply to the “real” news we collect, and likely also to “fake” news we collect as well. Surely, higher education has a long track record of studying propaganda. And difficult at times as this may be to confront, there are moments when a great many of us actually produce it.

Even though the specific context is helping undergraduate students assess websites in general, I recommend taking a look back at the 2004 Portal article by Marc Meola called “Chucking the Checklist,” which continues to be timely in an era of assessing fake news outlets. 2004 was the cusp of Google’s initial public stock offering and its use of the catchphrase “Don’t Be Evil” figured as important in those documents. It is also the year Facebook launched, followed in quick succession in the two subsequent years by launches of YouTube and Twitter respectively. What is essential in what Meola is urging us to do, is not only promote our high quality broccoli-like news sources available at libraries, because they are on “best” lists we can advertise, but to encourage students to consider context “outside” of any source being evaluated. Meola emphasizes getting beyond checklist only approaches by going to other sources and engaging in acts of information comparison and corroboration. All that as a technique for assessing the news that one reads or views, sounds awfully similar to steps highly skilled professional news reporters go thru when gathering news content in the first place. It is excellent advice.

One of the tougher elements of the notion librarians call information literacy is, for example, helping readers and researchers understand how to use less than reputable sources to pull out facts, leads and related information that may be quite revelatory, or sometimes bridges to similar reporting in more standard sources. I think those trained in investigative journalism are more steeped in such habits than are some scholars, unfortunately, because of the tendency of the latter to treat some methods and sources as virtual sacred objects (e.g., too much unquestioned preeminence of the peer reviewed scholarly article; too much preeminence accorded to the NY Times; or the unquestioned preeminence of a main textbook as a syllabic canon). None of that veneration is negative on its face, and in Otero’s fascinating news source visualization we do see a sense of helpful ranking. Perhaps the enhancement that table needs is some added visualization conveying that for the student, scholar or citizen, the various sources, ranging from Associated Press thru Fox News and CNN into Vox, the Guardian, Wall Street Journal or The Economist, over to InfoWars or Breitbart, need not necessarily be encountered in sealed off hermetically closed isolation.

One of the greatest weaknesses of many librarian generated source evaluation checklists is merely the failure to consider the role that primary sources play in the research process, including, often times, the most seemingly highly disreputable or utterly fake primary source materials. And if growing segments of the citizenry are attracted to inauthentic journalism and incorrect reporting, or maybe inclined to believe a statement of a political leader despite hard evidence to the contrary (e.g., extent of misreports about President Trump’s electoral vote victory when viewed in historical perspective) there is a responsibility to investigate why this is so.

We shall not be heading down these roads for the first time. In the past, U.S. political rhetoric has had a way of unmooring the populace from what the data tells us. One thinks of the so-called “missile gap” between America and the Soviet Union in the early Cold War (a gap sold to the public as a dangerous U.S. disadvantage, when in actuality American atomic fire power was well in advance of the Soviets), or the reputation of Teddy Roosevelt as the great “trustbuster.” (True enough, but Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, actually initiated a greater number of anti-trust actions).

What George Orwell writes about below, in a context far separated from modern notions of U.S. elections or information and news literacy, nonetheless emphasizes social and political contexts of the language we use, as authors, readers, listeners or viewers. His comments may take on added relevance the next time one hears the U.S. President utter a phrase like, “failing New York Times.” To focus solely on accuracy or lack of accuracy of the literal statement is to see only part of a picture. It risks ignoring an analysis of rhetoric in reference to the administration’s wider tugs of war with news organizations, a process not only about seeking of truth but also about persuasion, and in the end, about the struggle for power, which is the essence of politics.

Excerpted from George Orwell essay, Politics and The English Language: Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

References and Further Reading:

Campbell, W.J. (2001). Yellow journalism: Puncturing the myths, defining the legacies. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Eisenberg, M.B., Murray, J. & Bartow, C.  (2016). The Big6 curriculum: Comprehensive information and communication technology (ICT) literacy for all students. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Heppard, T.L. (2016, December 16). Experts: Media literacy combats fake news. Cortland Standard.

McChesney, R.W. & Pickard, V. (2011). Will the last reporter please turn out the light: The collapse of journalism and what can be done to fix it. New York: New Press

Meola, M. (2004). Chucking the checklist: A contextual approach to teaching undergraduates web-site evaluation. Portal: Libraries and the academy, 4(3), 331-344

Mihailidis, P. (2012). News literacy: Global perspectives for the newsroom and the classroom. New York: Peter Lang.

Mintz, A.P. (2012). Web of deceit: Misinformation and manipulation in the age of social media. Medford, N.J.: Cyberage Books.

Moritz, C. (2017, January 24). Newhouse professor explains fake news. Syracuse University News.

Morton, P.E. (2009). Tabloid Valley: Supermarket news and American culture. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Orwell, G. (1954). Essays. Selections. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Open access copy of essay, Politics and the English Language.

Schwartz, A.B. (2015). Broadcast hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the art of fake news. New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Seife, C. (2014). Virtual unreality: Just because the Internet told you, how do you know it’s true? New York: Viking.

Spencer, D.R. (2007). The yellow journalism: The press and America’s emergence as a world power. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Syracuse University Libraries Subject Guide: A dozen news databases that every SU student should know.

Syracuse University Libraries Subject Guide: New York Times.

Tocqueville, A.d. (1964). Democracy in America. New York: Pocket Books.

Vanessa Otero 2016 News Sources Chart, via Facebook, Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Welles, O. (Director). (1941). Citizen Kane [Motion picture]. RKO Radio Picture.

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