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Media experts discuss the rise of fake news at Festival of Ideas


Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.  — A panel of journalists and other professionals gathered Wednesday to discuss the increase in the occurrence of fake news and strategies to combat it.

The David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas presented the panel about fake news at the Mountainlair at West Virginia University. The panel was titled “Truth and Consequences: Fake News, Filter Bubbles and Democracy.”

Founder of David Mikkelson, from left, R Street Institute technology program director Zach Graves, The Associated Press urban affairs reporter Errin Haines Whack, Huffington Post senior politics editor Paige Lavender and West Virginia University assistant professor of communications studies Elizabeth Cohen participate in a forum on fake news at West Virginia University Wednesday.
(Photo by Michelle Dillon)

The panel was sponsored by Ogden Newspaper Seminar Series and WVU libraries.

Panel participants included founder David Mikkelson, R Street Institute technology policy program director Zach Graves, The Associated Press urban affairs reporter Errin Haines Whack, Huffington Post senior politics editor Paige Lavender and WVU assistant professor of communication studies Elizabeth Cohen.

Dean of the WVU Reed College of Media Mary Anne Reed made opening remarks. WVU media professor Emily Corrio was the moderator.

Fabricated information is nothing new, but it is now spreading much farther and faster than ever before thanks to the freedom and anonymity of the internet. People are seeking information that reinforces their own beliefs and experiences instead of information that represents diverse viewpoints, Reed said.

Some of that information is completely false and is made up and distributed by people using it to make money or who have an agenda to disrupt or damage our democracy, Reed said.

“As a former journalist and educator, I have to the say that the antidote to fake news is journalism — real news as reported by trained professionals who have a track record over time and whose work is fact checked and verified,” Reed said.

Reed then introduced the members of the panel. Corrio guided the discussion.

Corrio asked the panelists about whether they thought fake news influenced the 2016 presidential election.

Graves said that fake news is a fake problem, and that it has been around since the beginning. He is not sure that fake news is something we should be very worried about, he said.

Cohen and Whack both agreed that there has been fake news during the 2016 election, but that they cannot say that it influenced the election.

Lavender agreed that fake news exists, but does not like the term.

There is a lot of misleading or factually incorrect news. In response to this, she has slowed down her reporting and become more weary of breaking news. Breaking news can turn out to be fake and misleading, she said.

Whack also said that she did not see fake news on her social media accounts during the election, but did encounter people she talked to in person who were talking about fake news stories. She had not realized that this was happening, she said.

Graves believes that if fake news did influence the 2016 presidential election, it does not matter. The average American voter was uniformed well before fake news, he said.

Mikkelson said for a long time voters have been voting on hunches or impressions. Most people form their impressions from another source than social media. People want news made of sound bites that agree with their opinion and views.

Cohen said that when people use social media they already have an existing belief. Then they see something that they react to it emotionally. Blatantly fake news can have a sensational component. Even mainstream media will use click bait headlines on social media, she said.

There is a difference between what people want and what they watch and read. People want the truth. They watch and read stuff that makes them feel, Cohen said.

Corrio asked the panelists what they thought is the solution to the problem of fake news.

Mikkelson said that limiting what people see or read is not a good solution to fake news.

Some concrete steps that can be taken to deal with fake news include getting advertising providers to crack down on egregious fake news. Also, people could be educated about critical thinking and on how to evaluate news sources, Mikkelson said.

Graves said that there are a lot of important uses for stories that are 100 percent objective truth. Some of these uses include artistic expression and satire. We shouldn’t limit those uses, he said.

Internet companies have taken a light-handed approach to dealing with fake news, and that is a good thing. Facebook is working with sources to develop a crowd-sourced fake news identifier, and he is interested to see how that will work out, Graves said.

Whack said that to combat fake news, journalists need to continue to do their jobs as journalists.

“It is our job to tell the truth,” she said.

Journalists also need to turn the public from passive news consumers to active consumers of news. The media needs to teach the public that if an article doesn’t feel right, don’t pass it along, Whack said.

The public also needs to support media sources that are trying to give the real news. What the media does is necessary, valuable and is worth paying for and supporting, she said.

Lavender said the solution to fake news is to say calm. A lot of fake news hits people emotionally.

Journalists need to stay calm and think about their writing, editing and vetting of information. The public needs to stay calm and be calm before they share a story, she said.

The public should also unblock people with different beliefs on social media and listen to what everyone has to say and have conversations with people in real life, she said.

Cohen said that fake news cannot be eliminated. It is impossible and not worthwhile.

Education is inoculation against fake news. People learning and understanding how media works will help, she said.

The last piece of advice Cohen offered was that if people see someone sharing fake news, they should not correct that person publicly or it will be seen as an attack. People should instead make the person feel comfortable and privately tell the person about the fake news.

The panel ended with audience members getting the chance to ask the panelists questions.

The David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas spans the academic year and brings newsmakers, public figures and thought leaders, along with WVU superstars, to campus to engage the community in important issues, the program for the panel said.

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