SANTA FE -- With the presidential election approaching, there's renewed concern that consumers again will fall prey to "fake news" on social media. But one expert on the topic says there's a way to arm yourself against the onslaught.
Nolan Higdon is a professor of history and communication at California State University and a contributor to Project Censored. He said the role of news media in a free society is to investigate, inform and provide a crucial check on political power.
He noted the coronavirus pandemic has been the subject of a great deal of "fake news" that often exploits people's fears and moral outrage.
"Generally, it preys on real anxieties - that's really the most successful fake news," Higdon said. "And who doesn't have anxiety during a pandemic, especially one where you see unemployment hitting 30%."
Higdon said he believes President Donald Trump's repeated claims of "fake news" and framing of the media as the "enemy of the people" have made a bad scenario worse.
Some communication watchdogs have called on tech giants to crack down on fake news and institute a code to address misinformation. Higdon said he believes, however, that consumers need to be more savvy.
"We really need to focus on giving the individual media literacy skills - that is, how can they sift through information and figure out what's true and what's false instead of the approach where I think we're going, which is we're creating lists and we're having corporations and governments determine what is true and what's false," he said.
Higdon said he also worries that media giants such as Facebook, Google and other large corporations have significantly increased their presence in public schools in the past 20 years as a way to get their content into the classroom.
"If we can give a bunch of slick textbooks and MacBooks and things like that to a school, it will look like charity to the public," he said. "But really, it's getting access to all the data for all the children who are enrolled in public schooling in a particular state, nation or region."
According to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, consumers are not incapable of distinguishing between what is true and what is false, but often share misinformation because accuracy is not a benchmark used when deciding what to share.
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By Kristi Eaton for The Daily Yonder.
Broadcast version by Eric Galatas for Wyoming News Service for the Public News Service/Daily Yonder Collaboration
A new center in the southwest corner of Wyoming aims to offer digital skills and navigation for people who may not otherwise have access to it.
The Empowerment Center in Torrington is set to open in the next few weeks, said Matt Larsen, CEO of VistaBeam, the Internet service provider that is setting up the center.
“Our main goal with the Empowerment Center is, we wanted to get somebody set up to be a digital navigator to help support the community that was there,” he told the Daily Yonder. “We’re going to add a couple of workstations for digital skilling where we’ll have computers available, and people come in and use them whenever they need it. Microsoft is going to have some digital skill programs available that people can use for learning basic things, they can also access whatever else there is on the internet.”
The digital navigator will also be trained to help people sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program. There will also be a video conferencing set up so people can take part in telehealth appointments, Larsen said.
“We’ve also talked to some volunteer legal services that were willing to do video appointments for clients,” he said. “So there will actually be like the video conferencing area is also going to be set up like a community meeting room…We’re trying to come up with a general purpose facility that will be able to meet the needs of people that may or may not have access to broadband, or the technology or the help to be able to utilize the technology in their home.”
The mission behind the center is to empower communities, Larsen said.
“We look at broadband as a way to help communities be a little bit more self-sufficient, and not be dependent on things,” he added. “Most of the customer base that we have right now, they don’t necessarily have the expertise to try and figure out how to set up a telehealth monitoring system or even to set up video conferencing. We do. We do a lot of tech support. We help people with a lot of different things. And it seemed like the trend that we were starting to observe is that people really needed to have help with those applications.”
Jen Davis, senior policy advisor for Human Services for Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, said she has had conversations with Larsen about the concept.
“It will allow residents an alternative location to access technological resources such as telehealth, as well as get support from technology experts,” she told the Daily Yonder. “Many of our rural residents may not have technological access to services or some may not know how to utilize it.”
Davis said she would like to see the utilization patterns so that officials know where there remain gaps and where there are successes in order to replicate it properly.
“If this is successful, I would love to see this grow as an alternative location for rural Wyoming to gain access and support for technology,” she said, adding: “Since Wyoming is so rural, it is critical that we offer ways to connect to resources. Resource centers are a fundamental piece in providing hands-on services and support to residents who can’t otherwise access services.”
VistaBeam is a small provider – it operates in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska – so it needs to be well connected to its customers, Larsen said.
“We looked at this as an opportunity to kind of take that customer relationship to the next level, and even open ourselves up to people,” he said. “This is not something that’s only going to be available to our customers, it’s going to be available to anybody that walks in.”
The company is self-funding the endeavor, mainly from the marketing budget, he said, adding that if successful, they hope to open additional centers in Colorado, Nebraska and elsewhere in Wyoming.
“We’d like to see it kind of develop as being a go-to place for people to have any kind of digital equity stuff that they need to get taken care of,” Larsen said. “We’d like to see it become something that people feel comfortable coming in, and using it, and to just kind of develop a closer tie with the community.”
Kristi Eaton wrote this article for The Daily Yonder.
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Americans continue to report low trust in mainstream media, with many younger than 30 saying they trust information from social media nearly as much as from national news outlets.
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As we reach the end of National News Literacy Week, Randy Essex, former executive editor of the Omaha World Herald and now editor at the Detroit Free Press, offered some explanations for this declining trust, starting with the role he feels conservative radio and television have played for a generation.
"The rise of this clearly partisan media is a business model, and part of that model is to sow distrust of established sources of information, whether that be national media or the government," he said. "The statement, essentially, is 'Believe us, not them, we're on your side.'"
Essex said other factors include the consolidation in the radio industry, closing of hundreds of local newspapers and the pervasiveness of social media. He said he believes even COVID contributed, with fear making people more susceptible to conspiracy theories. He called rebuilding public trust in mainstream news "a tremendous uphill battle," and maintained that transparency and ethics are paramount.
Essex added that editors have an important role to play.
"Top editors need to communicate with the public, and explain the work that we're doing and counter unfounded criticism of it," he said. "When we make mistakes, we have to be transparent about that, too. And we need to connect in person and be in the community when we can, because human beings are much more civil in person than they are on the internet."
Essex said the public has some responsibility, too, including checking sources and being skeptical.
"And the problem is that for a generation," he said, "a lot of people have been conditioned to not believe established organizations that are doing real news."
Essex stressed that, ultimately, journalists show the public their worth through their work.
"Locally, the city council is the end of the debate," he said. "The real debate is happening out in the community, or behind closed doors in board rooms, and it's our job to find that real issue, not to just cover what's happening on the surface. And that's where our value is."
As National News Literacy Week comes to an end, one Nevada journalism professor says media professionals need to make building trust with their audiences a top priority.
Some might say that's easier said than done. According to the News Literacy Project, only 26% of Americans say they trust most news, most of the time.
Professor Paromita Pain, assistant professor of global media at the University of Nevada Reno's Reynolds School of Journalism, said she teaches her journalism students to foster those relationships by giving audiences an idea of how stories are curated. She said she believes it's a news outlet's responsibility to establish a dialogue that promotes transparency among readers, viewers or listeners.
"How about putting a line in the story that also tells the audience that not only was the source vetted, but how exactly was that vetting done," she said.
Pain said that can be achieved by explaining how reporters meet their sources and why they choose to interview one person over another. The News Literacy Project has four steps anyone can take to help increase their overall news savvy, and other resources online at newslit.org.
Pain said reporters are products of the times and cultures they come from, and that everyone has some biases, even as they try hard to overcome them. She encouraged people to get their news from a variety of sources, especially on controversial issues. She said this more holistic approach to news is key, and that the responsibility falls on everyone.
"Finding multiple sources, making sure that we do our own research when it comes to topics, especially topics that sound very partisan, or which may sound terribly biased from the get-go," she said.
She added that it's also important for journalists to listen to audience feedback and constructive critiques, so that everyone feels heard and seen. And in a world where there are fewer news outlets all the time, her advice for current and future journalists is to "stay resilient."
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