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Home > Publications > Quill > Tips For Digging Out of the 'Fake News' Sinkhole



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Thursday, April 13, 2017
Tips For Digging Out of the 'Fake News' Sinkhole

Education Toolbox

By Mac McKerral

The “fake news” avalanche began a few months ago, and I continue to dig myself out.

I am ignoring the adage that “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Within a few days, along with reading a bevy of news reports on fake news, I served on a panel, which in part focused on fake news; a student organization asked me to serve on a panel on how to identify fake news; I did several newspaper and TV interviews on fake news; and a student working on a class project interviewed me about fake news.

How exciting would it be if the masses were this interested in real news?

Meanwhile, some good real news comes from the SPJ Education Committee: It is creating a coalition of journalism organizations to re-ignite interest in the media literacy curriculum.

As to student interest in fake news, I think we can be helpful.

Many students are stunned to learn that “fake news” isn’t new. It existed long before the 2016 presidential election.

It’s a broad term. I start by breaking it down:

• Propaganda: This effective tool for circulating misinformation can come directly from the source, and in many cases gets circulated by the news media, unwillingly and willingly.

• Sponsored content: The excellent example of “marketingspeak” is information in all formats packaged to look like news, when in fact it is paid advertising. Sponsored content routinely appears on legitimate news sites these days. And in print, some of the devices used to distinguish it from non-advertising content have been eliminated.

• Video news releases: Through the years, SPJ has been on the record opposing use of these slickly packaged TV reports not created by news organizations but aired by them.

• Parody/comedy: One of the most popular places for students to get their “news” is from programs such as “The Daily Show,” and others similar to it, and from comedy skits on late-night TV. These creative endeavors come with threads of truth — some thicker than others. The Onion also falls into this category. Some of its stories have made it into mainstream news delivery.

• “Fake news”: This slickly packaged fiction delivered primarily through social media led one of its creators, Paul Horner, to crow that his work helped win the election for President Donald Trump.

So do we help students avoid getting duped?

Some suggestions:

• Don’t pass along: In Rich Martin’s excellent primer for aspiring journalists, “Living Journalism,” he warns against reporting that passes along news reported by others. Find the source of that information, and if it’s legit, report it originally.

• Find the primary documents: So much of the information used to create news stories is available for people to view for themselves — whether it's local ordinances, federal legislation or lawsuits. Go to the source, rather than accepting what an information provider tells us.

• Media literacy: Some wise people years ago recognized the need for media literacy in curriculum, and it got some “buzz” for a while. But as is often the case, those things that catch journalism education’s fancy quickly get replaced with the next great idea. Hopefully, the SPJ Education Committee initiative will give it some lasting traction.

• Fact-checking drills: The number and quality of fact-checking entities is on the rise, and some are eager to partner with schools and offer training. The folks from PolitiFact came to my campus in the fall, and students packed the auditorium for the insightful and entertaining presentation.

• Give them the tools: The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Safety: at Harvard University offers a toolbox for helping to sniff out fake news. It also provides a compilation of research on the kinds of fake news floating about (see “resources” links).

And a piece of advice that I routinely offered when speaking to civic groups about the news business: “If you are really interested in an issue — if it’s really important to you — a news report is a great place to start. But it’s not the place to stop. Keep digging.” ***

Gordon “Mac” McKerral teaches and coordinates the journalism program at Western Kentucky University. He is a former national SPJ president and longtime member of the Education Committee and Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board of directors. Email

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