Prof teaches how to tell real news from ‘fake’

  • FOX

  • UMass Professor Steve Fox speaks on “news literacy” in Shelburne Falls. Recorder Photo/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

SHELBURNE FALLS — Before internet and cable TV, deciding what was “news,” and what was true and accurate was the job of professional journalists and news editors.

But now it’s everyone’s job, says Steve Fox, a 25-year journalist and now, a journalism professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Long before the “Twitter storms” of the president, Fox was a political editor at The Washington Post, guiding post-election coverage of the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election and the 9/11 terrorism attacks in 2001.

In 2016, Fox began teaching a News Literacy course at UMass, open to both journalism and non-journalism students, on how to cope with a 24-hour news cycle.

“How do you get your news,” Fox asked about three dozen audience members in Shelburne Falls, at a talk hosted by the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club. “Do you check the news when you wake up?”

Or, he asked, do you feel “there’s very little information I need to know now, as opposed to in a few hours?”

In the heyday of anchorman Walter Cronkite, he said, “We sought to know what news is important. Now it’s up to us to figure out what news is important to us.”

“I try to stay away from the phrase ‘fake news,’ because it’s become so politicized,” he said. “What are we looking for when we try to figure out what’s news? How do we know what’s reliable?”

“You have to look at the source and ask if it’s a trustworthy source, who is the source and how do they know about (the subject),” he said. “We need to ask who else is telling the same story. Are they providing evidence or just making assertions? Last, does this source have a dog in this fight?”

Fox explained how news editors would evaluate the credibility of a story. He said multiple sources are better than a single-source news story, and named sources are better than anonymous ones. Can the source verify the information? Is there documentation or a paper trail? And what about objectivity?

Fox repeated Winston Churchill’s words that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.”

“We’re living in a culture (regardless of where we get our news) where we, as news consumers, are obligated to find out if something is accurate before passing that news on to someone else,” he said. “Even official sources can get it wrong.”

Fox showed CNN footage in which reporter John King had reported immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 that a suspect had been arrested and charged with the crime. That “exclusive” report proved to be false and the unnamed source was wrong. CNN and King were later taunted by Jon Stewart that their story was “exclusive” because it was wrong.

“The sausage being made is live,” said Fox. “John King, if he didn’t have that camera in his face, would have made a few (phone) calls and learned he’d had false information,” said Fox.

Fox suggested Snopes and the Washington Post’s “Pinnocchio” fact-checker websites. He said news readers should ask if the story supports the headline. He defined “bias” as “a pattern of unfairness,” and said news outlets can have bias. However, there is also consumer bias: “There is cognitive dissonance, when we don’t want to hear information that challenges our view,” he said.

During the audience comments, Susan Flaccus remarked that she believes news literacy ought to be taught to children in public school. “It seems to me, this is a major failing of American education, that you have to teach this to students at a college level,” she said.

When asked about “spin,” Fox said many people have trouble separating news from opinion. One reason for the confusion, he said, is the TV news format in which a panel discussion (opinion) immediately follows the presentation of factual news.

He also reminded the audience that Donald Trump wasn’t the first president to dislike his press coverage. “People don’t like us,” he said. “Obama, Clinton didn’t like journalists at all. It was a little more subtle though.”

Fox added, “Fake news is definitely a reality.”