Nichols Explores ‘Fake News’ Phenomenon

On Thursday, April 11, at 6:30 p.m., Nichols College will host “What’s It A’bot?” – a panel discussion on media literacy for the 21st century. Panelists will be members of the local and regional media, and it will be moderated by Shaun Moriarty, founder of local digital news publication The Citizen Chronicle. The free, non-partisan event is open to the public and co-organized by the Dudley Democratic Town Committee and the Dudley Republican Town Committee. It starts at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in Daniels Auditorium.

To register to attend, visit “What’s It A’Bot?” on Eventbrite.


The following story was published in the March 22, 2019, edition of The Webster Times, on page 2.

“Everything’s Misleading”


DUDLEY – “Everything’s misleading,” noted Nichols College sophomore Jack Keefe. “That chart right there shows it’s not an unbiased thing.”

Stating a common thought from participants of last week’s “Fischer Fishbowl” on fake news, Keefe was referring to a chart of several major media sources – print, TV and Internet – projected on the screen overlooking Daniels Auditorium.

Such fake news runs the gamut from dangerously bad medicine – such as recent stories proposing use of chlorine to “cure” autism – to active disinformation campaigns for political gain to mass-marketed lies for profit. Somewhere in there are honest mistakes that become internet memes before the correction ever gets printed.

But, in fact, it’s not really a new phenomenon.

As Professor Mike Neagle noted, while the term “really came into vogue with Donald Trump,” fake news and “the tensions between politicians and the press have been around throughout American history.” Even in the 1790s, President John Adams wrote “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last 10 years than in the 100 years before 1780.” While that probably wasn’t factually true, it pointed to the fact newspapers back then (and well into the 20th century) were expected to favor a partisan position, Neagle said.

In 1798, the Sedition Act specifically targeted publication of statements that went against the president or Congress (it was later ruled unconstitutional). A century later, the era of “yellow journalism” featured a lot of hyper-partisan reporting and sensational or fabricated stories to drive up sales, he noted. One of them became infamous – the allegation that Spain blew up the USS Maine in Havana harbor. It sparked the War of 1898, but was only proven long afterward to actually have been an internal, accidental explosion.

Neagle described three major forms of fake news. One, commonly employed by the Trump administration, is to use the term to “disparage unflattering news reports, no matter how authentic those reports may be.” He’s not alone; many government officials and others have made such claims, even in the face of recorded evidence that the story was true. The second form are stories that are “complete fabrications,” such as the PizzaGate scandal of 2016, which led a gunman to later shoot up the Washington pizzeria falsely accused of being a center of a child sex trafficking ring. The third form is intentional satire and parody, such as “The Daily Show” and The Onion.

“We choose to believe what we want to believe… and we need to decipher that for ourselves,” said junior Hope Rudzinski. But the professional media also “kind of have to take credit for what’s out there” because of the way the media has changed in recent years. While editors, writers and the sources they rely on should all be honest, consolidation of media has slashed jobs, forced writers into shorter deadlines, encouraged “clickbait”-style reporting, and undermined the follow-up that makes for good journalism.

“In the modern news landscape, there’s a race to be first,” Professor Boyd Brown observed.

While most journalists are not “out there to report inaccurately,” he said, the rush often means “an incomplete story.”

Neagle agreed, noting that even well-intentioned reporters might not have the resources to get the story right, and the media often fixates on “both sides-ism,” which “can be taken to an extreme.”

To Keefe, those factors mean “you’re not going to get quality, good stories.” Since people often only read the first version of a story and may never see the more detailed and correct- ed later version, they never get the full story, he said.

“I don’t think I see an anchor on TV I think I can trust,” Keefe said, pointing to the fact the major stations have become overtly partisan. He specifically cited 2016 election coverage in which anchors were “crying on the air. That makes it hard to trust them.”

Senior Leah Baxendade noted the news fakery is also common on non-news sources, particularly social media.

“Sometimes [people will] hear something quick and make their own version of it,” without seeing if it’s true, she said.

With all the misinformation, she added, it “can be hard to judge which [sources] to listen to.”

When asking how to identify fakery, Brown noted “sometimes really crazy stuff hap- pens and it’s true.” The students agreed, noting you can sometimes tell by the way the site’s ads occur or look, whether it requires multiple clicks to read, and whether the website URL matches with the site’s name.

“One problem with fake news is that we’re so used to it, when we see it, we just roll our eyes and move on,” added Professor Paul Lambert. He said he can’t recall a president being “so loose with the truth” that false statements have often become the news.

Referring back to the projected chart, Lambert observed that CNN was placed in the bottom center (meaning, it’s fairly neutral, but clickbait oriented).

“I don’t think I’d put CNN in the middle anymore” because of how much coverage it gives to “DJT,” he said.

Before the cable era, the whole nation had three main networks, and presumed the news was “impartial” and “unbiased.”

“The presumption there is [objective] truth out there is gone,” he added.

While he still believes it does exist, it’s hard to identify when “I watch what I want to watch.”

Brown agreed, noting news broadcasts used to make clear distinction between news and opinion segments, but often don’t do that today.

“Objective truths are clouded in shades of grey,” he said, pointing to the Benghazi attack as an example.

Since it happened in 2012, Brown said, “the narrative has been so twisted and shaped” by various sides that knowing what really happened is diffi- cult.

Several participants agreed a key way to fix the problem is good education in media literacy, a broader education in general, and more clarity on who owns or benefits from various media sources.

Nichols is planning a follow-up forum on the fake news issue for 6:30 p.m. April 11 at Daniels Auditorium.

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