It used to be really funny when my friends shared articles from The Onion on their Facebook feeds thinking the stories were real. Everyone would take a turn explaining, no, 42 million people didn’t die on Black Friday.
When Brian Williams was suspended from NBC News two years ago for making up combat experiences in Iraq, the satire news site The Mideast Beast poked fun at the story, with the article “ ‘Real News’ Agencies Slam ‘Fake News’ Sites for Spreading Inaccuracy.”
It’s not funny anymore.
This past week, the White House barred The New York Times, Politico, CNN and The Los Angeles Times from attending a press briefing held by Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary and communications director. At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24, President Donald Trump ranted that the media was dishonest. He said, “I want you to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake …” and went on to claim that such news media outlets routinely faked sources. In a tweet on Feb. 17, Trump wrote “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
Since Trump was elected, the American people have heard U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway use the term “alternative facts” with regard to Spicer’s lie about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration. We have also been lied to about “terrorist attacks”, such as the Bowling Green Massacre and whatever Trump meant when he recenetly gave an address in Florida and spoke about some incident in Sweden.
Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, and other organizations like it, are teaching essential skills for our age of information and misinformation. It is up to us as a populace to watch our government and our media and to root out the real deceivers.
I took News Literacy my first semester at Stony Brook. The class was meant to teach students how to read news with the right balance of belief and cynicism to differentiate between well-reported and poorly-devised news. During the first week of the semester, we did an exercise to show how much we rely on the news every day. We were told to go half a week without consuming any news and to write about the experience. Students spoke about how truly altered their lives were when they couldn’t get external information.
Now there are entire websites dedicated to perpetuating actual false news. The piece I personally saw most often was a picture of Trump from years ago with a quote about running for office as a Republican because “they’re the dumbest group of voters.” Other widely spread fake news included the idea that Pope Francis endorsed Trump for president, whatever Pizzagate was and that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS.
Amid all of this, legitimate news organizations made reports as usual, meaning that they sourced information, possibly got information wrong at times and made corrections.
Trump is no stranger to advocating stories that have been proven false. He’s argued that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, that thousands of Muslims were cheering on 9/11 and that vaccinations cause autism.
The Center for News Literacy shares informational slides and videos on its Twitter page on how we can consume news better. It offers courses to college and high school students in the U.S. and abroad that aim to teach people how to better decipher the difference between real and fake news and between objective and subjective reporting. It has resources, cites research and offers online courses for anyone interested.
After completing the news literacy class, I felt comfortable analyzing the validity of individual sources, specific articles, certain journalists and entire news organizations.
The Mideast Beast’s motto is “Because all news is satirical” (along with a page emphasizing that the site is mean to be funny but not true). The Washington Post’s new motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The New York Times’ new ad campaign is titled “The truth is more important now than ever.”
The truth is important, and it’s up to all of us to verify it.