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More than one media outlet in China fell for a recent New Yorker satire that depicted President Trump, in his bathrobe, ordering aides to wrap White House phones in pry-proof tinfoil. Michelle Amazeen can testify that discerning fact from fiction isn’t just a foreign problem—as a College of Communication assistant professor, she says, she has a front-row seat in the theater of news illiteracy.
Amazeen, who teaches mass communication, advertising, and public relations, says she has seen students turn in papers citing sober-sounding sources—educational or official groups, seemingly—“but that are in reality industry or front groups with an agenda.” She says media literacy must go beyond being able to distinguish fake news from legitimate news to include an awareness of propaganda efforts.
On April 5, COM spearheaded a Media Literacy Initiative consisting of public events to boost the BU community’s ability to tell the differences between legitimate news, opinion, and plain old lying.
To open the event, Aaron Sharockman, executive director of the truth-monitoring website PolitiFact, gave a talk about how journalists try to assess the veracity of political leaders. William McKeen, a COM journalism professor and chair and associate dean, moderated the discussion.
Steve Yaeger, Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune vice president and chief marketing officer, also spoke about his efforts to uphold his paper’s reputation as an island of legitimacy in a media ocean of fake news.
“As early as 1787,” says Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), dean of COM, “Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that the success of our democracy depends on the decisions made by an ‘informed citizenry.’ The challenge today is ensuring that the electorate is able to distinguish between quality information and misinformation.”
Hamilton may be spinning in his grave after social media spewed waves of fake news during last year’s election, often on Trump’s behalf, including announcements that Pope Francis had endorsed the Republican and that President Obama and Hillary Clinton had promised amnesty to undocumented immigrants who voted Democratic.
“Recent evidence has shown that even US public policy makers were influenced by the sugar industry’s effort to distort scientific inquiry,” by paying scientists in the 1960s to downplay sugar’s role in heart disease, Amazeen says.
She coauthored a study showing that less than 50 percent of online news readers notice the source of their news. She says other research shows that in deciding whether to trust the reporting, it’s the person who shares a news link online that’s more important to readers than the actual news source.
“Cognitive psychology tells us that we are motivated to trust information that feels consistent with what we already believe,” Amazeen says, and that we are less likely to process information contradicting our beliefs.
And while readers shoulder some blame for swallowing false or biased information, she says, the spreaders of misinformation, and institutions that are supposed to expose them, also are culpable. “Millions of people, for instance, were exposed to media headlines touting a bogus scientific study claiming that eating chocolate can help us lose weight,” she says. “How are students and everyday people who are trying to go about their daily lives supposed to make sense of these types of stories if not only journalists fail to catch their illegitimacy, but academic journals fail to as well?”
Another event in COM’s literacy initiative is the two-day international conference Journalism and the Search for Truth. Running April 24 and 25 at the Castle, 225 Bay State Rd., the conference features panels on the philosophy, ethics, and practical effects of social media’s influence on journalism and democracy.