Panel of experts at UMFK tackles media literacy and fake news

A panel of journalists and professors addressed the proliferation of fake news, in particular on social media, during a symposium event at the University of Maine at Fort Kent on April 19.

Introducing the panel, UMFK President John Short emphasized the timeliness of the two-week long symposium’s theme of “Whats real, Whats not; In Search of Truth” and the importance of media literacy in the age of social media.

Friday’s panel included Bangor Daily News journalist Julia Bayly; visiting Fulbright Scholar Dr. Fanbin Zeng; Northeast Publishing and Print Works General Manager Andrew Birden; University of Michigan Assistant Professor Dr. Josh Pasek; UMFK Associate Professor of History Dr. Paul Buck; and UMFK Associate Professor of Oral Communication Joseph Zubrick.

Buck acknowledged how changes in technology alter how politicians are able to communicate with their constituents. While we are currently seeing the first use of twitter by a president, however, many politicians have made similarly groundbreaking use of available technology throughout the history of the United States, he said. From President Barack Obama using Facebook, to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats, all the way to patriots during the American Revolutionary War using pamphlets and newspapers to gather support, Buck emphasized that technology has continually changed the way political discourse has occurred.

Bayly told audience members that journalists very rarely intend to create fake news, which makes it important to inform journalists of their mistakes, so they can be corrected. Bayly believes that while digital media can be used to spread disinformation, it also can be used to communicate with journalists faster than has previously been possible, allowing genuine mistakes to be corrected quickly.

Pasek, adding to Bayly’s comments, encouraged audience members to track down the information provided by newspapers, and verify that it is accurate. He encouraged people to analyze sources of information in news stories and ensure that their perspective is relevant to the story.

All panel members emphasized the importance of critically analyzing news sources, and expanding beyond information that confirms the reader’s own opinion. Zeng told social media users to beware of the possibility of creating an echo chamber, where the only information that readers absorb is that which confirms their own opinion.

One audience member asked if the panelists believed that the removal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987 contributed to the rise of fake news. Zubrick believed it did, stating that the lack of a requirement to include differing opinions allowed for the rise of talk news shows, which many viewers have a difficult time distinguishing from more traditional news.

Not all audience members appreciated the idea of being responsible for critically analyzing their intake of information. One audience member pushed back against the need to analyze their news sources, asking, “Why should I be responsible for what you are writing?”

Bayly acknowledged that the audience member’s concerns were valid, but said that news has evolved to make active readership necessary.

The panelists didn’t believe that journalists were completely blameless for the negative changes that have affected journalism, however. Pasek believes that the 24-hour news cycle has encouraged news organizations to create news very quickly, but often at the expense of its quality. Bayly believes that some journalists at major media outlets have strayed from hard-hitting journalism, and could do a better job of asking difficult questions of authority figures.

Some solutions to the problem of fake news were offered, but panelists acknowledged that none of them was perfect. Birden encouraged audience members to rely on subscription based news sources, rather than social media outlets, which make the majority of their profits on ad revenue and data sharing. This is because journalistic standards require multiple sources, along with fact-checking by editors.

One audience member asked why fake news couldn’t be outlawed, but Pasek believed that it would be too difficult to legislate, and too difficult to enforce, meaning fake news is unlikely to disappear in the immediate future.

The panel ended with a reminder that just because something is popular and widely shared, it does not mean that it is accurate.

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