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Can You Tell Real News from Fake News, Propaganda, Lies?

COM media literacy events start today

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poster for COM Media Literacy Initiative

A two-day conference later this month is part of a Media Literacy Initiative the College of Communication is spearheading. Courtesy of College of Communication

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.

Starting this afternoon, COM is spearheading 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.

Aaron Sharockman, executive director of the truth-monitoring website PolitiFact, will give a talk today from 5 to 7 p.m. in the George Sherman Union conference auditorium. William McKeen, a COM journalism professor and chair and associate dean, will moderate the discussion about how journalists try to assess the veracity of political leaders.

Tomorrow, at the same time and location, Steve Yaeger, Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune vice president and chief marketing officer, will talk 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. 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 a two-day international conference on Journalism and the Search for Truth (find info here). 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.

9 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

9 Comments on Can You Tell Real News from Fake News, Propaganda, Lies?

  • Pepe on 04.05.2017 at 7:26 am

    Do you know what else is fake news?
    – Hillary Clinton will win the election by a landslide
    – Hands up don’t shoot was real
    – Obama didn’t know about Hillary’s private server until he heard about it on the news
    – WMDs were real

    We are being lied to by our government and our mainstream media outlets on an hourly basis, yet we’re supposed to trust them regarding which news is fake and which news isn’t? Please.

    By the way, if fake news gave Trump the election, how come no one talked about it until after he won?

    • Exasperated Student on 04.05.2017 at 4:01 pm

      If you think that sites like Breitbart, Fox News or InfoWars represent any modicum of journalistic integrity I would love to see the receipts.

      • Pepe on 04.06.2017 at 10:11 am

        I did not mention any of those news outlets.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 04.05.2017 at 10:26 am

    Unfortunately, PolitiFact is itself a left-biased outlet. It’s not as bad as snopes.com, but it reports on 2-3 times as many Republican statements as Democrat, excluding overtly false Democrat statements and clearly true Republican ones. Today’s front page of politifact has nothing on Susan Rice. Nothing? Are you kidding me? But it keeps stoking the old, dead, and tenuous embers of the debunked Trump/Putin axis.

    • Exasperated Student on 04.05.2017 at 3:53 pm

      News flash Wolfie, there is no legitimate evidence of Rice committing any crime in unmasking his associates during surveillance of foreign officials. There’s no evidence that what was done was unlawful. No credible evidence at all. This president has a history of sensationalizing false controversy to draw attention from his own failures. No, Hillary Clinton is not the ringleader of a child abuse ring. No, mass voter fraud did not ensure Clinton would win the popular vote. No, Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was not the biggest ever. There is no issue too small or too petty for this man to broadcast from the White House. The last 8 years of Republican muckracking have made angry Americans hungry for any information that lends credibility to their outdated visions for the nation. Seeing as you’re a head-in-the-sand conservative poltergeist that haunts virtually any comments section that gives you the chance to be a contrarian, this probably won’t have much weight but I figured it was worth a shot.

      • Bullard W on 04.07.2017 at 12:44 pm

        ‘News flash’? Rice herself admitted to having requested surveillance transcripts having normally redacted names of Americans unmasked. That is not a crime. At least one unmasked American’s name, Flynn, was released to the media. That IS a crime and only this much is presently known. Whatever comes of it is still under investigation.
        absolutely no inside knowledge of Rice’s still to be determined culpability.
        The rest of Exasperated’s speculative ‘News flash’ reveals absolutely no inside knowledge of Rice’s still to be determined culpability. Sadly, the writer’s unkind diatribe itself never makes a cogent point. Good luck when you finally sail off in search of the real world. I hope you can successfully navigate the stiff headwinds.

  • AS on 04.05.2017 at 11:39 am

    Shouldn’t we also talk about the self-censoring of so called objective news outlets? Is it a lie if I choose to bury a story, don’t report on it and never pursue it just because I fear the outcome? CNN has repeatedly stated in recent months that they will tell us what is important and what is not. They declared the Susan Rice story as a diversion and won’t report on it.

  • Ignatz on 04.05.2017 at 3:03 pm

    I’ve distrusted the media since the fake news story by NBC about Chevy trucks exploding. That was over 20 years ago.

    Did NBC apologize? Sorta. They admitted a MISTAKE by ‘allowing’ the truck to be rigged. Allowing? How about admitting they did it? (That’ll be the day) Now the founders of fake news want us to believe them. (I repeat: That’ll be the day)

    In the interest of full disclosure: I own neither a Chevy nor a truck, though I once owned a ’68 Impala — decent car, pretty old when I owned it — but that was long before the event that NBC faked.

    “The media” is such a catch-all term. Whether right or left, in general the stories, or the selection of the stories, is biased — sometimes cleverly, sometimes transparently. Really there are no credible sources.

  • Christine Edmonds on 04.06.2017 at 2:26 am

    Even if this seminar just helps improve the 50% number of people who check a news source it will have been a success. Kudos to Ms. Amazeen and the BU community for attempting to tackle this problem. High Schools and Middle schools should consider spending a bit of time training teens to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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