Fake News and College Students
Story and photo illustrations by Heather Hay, staff reporter
As the issue of fake news makes headlines, CNM has been providing students with the tools to debunk fake news, and now has an online guide on how to navigate information, according to instructors and library specialists.
West Side Library’s Reference Specialist Scott Reece said he had noticed fake news mentioned in the media, especially since the election. Around the beginning of April he said he created a guide to help students evaluate resources and give instructors a tool for guiding students to critically reviewed information.
What does Fake News mean?
Fake News is news that usually has these characteristics: the information is unverified, the news appeals to emotion, the authors usually are not experts, and the main idea of the story is unique and unable to be found anywhere else, according to the libguide.
It has become difficult to tell if a story is fake or real on the internet however, and it can take so many different forms, he said. Reece said some fake news relies on reprinting regular news stories with a fantastic headline that only slightly relates to or does not relate to the story; the story could also be misleading in that it is biased or completely made up.
“But a lot of people don’t read past the headline. They see the headline, they believe the headline and the body of the story is just there to give it a veneer of respectability when it’s fake,” he said.
Reece said that an instructor was using a really good example of a fake news website which is actually a fun creative web project, The Northwestern Tree Octopus.
“It’s a fake website that he was using to demonstrate to his class. If you know what to look for it’s got a lot of hallmarks that it’s fake. If you don’t know what to look for you might be convinced that there’s actually a tree octopus out their somewhere,” he said.
If fake news has always been around, why are we talking about it now?
Reece said that he thinks a big reason we are still talking about fake news is because of the last presidential election; there is still controversy over how much fake news actually affected the outcome.
He also said that television news has changed to become a 24 hour news cycle where there is a rush to get the news out and legitimate news organizations occasionally make mistakes. He said that unfortunately leads to the creation of fake news even though a legitimate news organization will retract or correct the mistake. This then damages the reputation of legitimate news sources in the eyes of people who were skeptical of them anyway, he said.
Journalism Instructor Jack Ehn also explained why fake news is in the media so much lately. He said that fake news ix used as a method of distracting attention away from events or undermining accusations. He cites Russia as an example when it spread reported that Syria used chemical weapons.
He also said that president Trump and his advisors have used fake news to undermine the media and “throw doubt into readers minds that any coverage of Trump is going to be accurate; it’s all to embarrass them.”
“So a lot of publications are kind of left leaning and I get that, and a lot of reporters and editors are left leaning and I get that, and they may not have the same mind set as people in Middle America that Trump appealed to, the disenfranchised blue collar workers and such. I think there’s a certain amount of truth in the criticisms of the media, however there are techniques for being objective and reporters know how to do it,” he said.
He also said that it is the job of a news organization to report on conflict, which is what the relationship between the press and the government is right now; this category of news worthiness, conflict, leads journalists to hold the government to account.
“So Trump can’t discredit news organizations for doing their job, and the other problem is if he discredits them, what if [the news] reports something that’s favorable to Trump,” said Ehn.
He also said that a fundamental part of his journalism education, in his work experience and to his students, it to go out and get sources. As a journalist, he said, “you can’t feel good about makin’ stuff up.”
Why is credible news important to college students?
College students rely on credible information for research assignments, and the confusion over what is or is not fake news can make it difficult for students to find resources, said Mary Lightfoot, English instructor at the West Side campus.
Reece said, “If you were trying to rely on a story that you thought was real but was actually fake for an assignment or a paper it could affect your grade. If you got called on that it could be very uncomfortable for someone to learn that something they believed was true wasn’t true.”
Lightfoot said she has her classes go through a library instruction session with a librarian to explain their peer reviewed and judged resources. She said her students are restricted to only using articles from those databases because “when you’re talking about critical thinking a reliable news source is essential.” She also said that a librarian will know the correct words to use to find exactly what you are searching for.
Reece said that he teaches library instruction courses catered to the instructors’ catered needs, but the resource training is not limited to English 1101,1102 or IRW classes. Recently he said he had taught a library instruction for a Sociology instructor and campus libraries can do library instructions for students learning English.
Reece said he had recently been able help the physical assistant program at West Side with getting their accreditation approved by providing a list of credible resources for their students. He said it was his first library instruction for a health science course, “That was fun because it’s an interest that I have its one that I haven’t been able to pursue as much because we don’t have as many programs available on this campus for that.”
College students need credible resources about health not only for assignments for their own personal use as well. “Man there’s so much out there regarding health that is not reliable information,” said Reece.
A recent example of a study that is criticized for being biased is “The Scientific Basis of Guideline Recommendations on Sugar Intake: A Systematic Review.” The New York Times reported that the authors of the study had close ties to companies such as Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s among others. The New York Times reported on the history of the sugar industry’s attempts to manipulate and cast doubt on scientific studies regarding food.
On a much bigger picture, reliable news and the media plays an important function in our democracy, according to Ehn. Fake news is calling the credibility of the media into question, and the media will live or die based on their credibility he said.
“They establish a relationship with their readers over years that their reporting fairly and honestly and even if something disagrees with their editorial policy they’ll report it honestly,” he said.
Ehn said that people used to believe that if news were in print that it was true, but now that is not the case. “You have to have some faith that some organizations are doing the best that they can. You can’t live in a world where nothing is believable,” he said.
Verifying sources is one of the first things a journalist is taught, he said.
Ehn explained that when he used to work for the Tribune he received an op-ed piece, which is an article of opinion written by someone not affiliated with the editors of the newspaper, from somewhere that he could not track where it came from.
He said it came from a scientist that was advocating that smoking was good for you, and so he was thinking of putting it in the lineup of op-eds, but his natural instinct as a reporter made him want to investigate where the piece had come from.
He called the author of the story and asked where the study was coming from so he could talk to the person who had done the study directly, and the author would not tell Ehn, so he would not run the story.
“If there’s someone advocating for something you always look at their background connections,” he said, “I wouldn’t use it because they are trying to plant information. There’s a whole industry that is trained to spread that information.”
According to the Associated Press millennial college students receive a lot of their news through social media sites. This news may be misleading and according to the Wall Street Journal story on the Fake News libguide those stories can be designed to illicit clicks and limit the news you see to stories you agree with.
CNM English instructor Carly Harschlip from Montoya campus said social media has “content that is designed to push our buttons.” She also said “I haven’t changed the way I teach about fake news because it’s always been there, but I am using the phrase now.”
Seamus O’Sullivan, Political Science and Sociology instructor said he did not necessarily address fake news, but routinely discusses reliable and authoritative sources of information and not just opinion.
“The term ‘fake news’ is sometimes not very helpful in the current political climate because it, unfortunately, has come to mean any news or information that you disagree with, not news or information that lacks supporting evidence,” he said.
What tools do students have available to find credible resources?
The CNM library subscribes to three different databases each with many different reliable news sources, you can find sources to use or verify another news source you found. Reece said if you think a story may be fake, look and see if anybody else is reporting on the same story, and if it’s legitimate the other news outlets will be reporting on it. You can also access the NY Times, Washington Post and several magazine subscriptions through the library’s website.
CNM library’s libguides are web pages dedicated to guiding you through a particular task or explain a topic, and are on the library’s home page under “Research Guides.” The Fake News guide is laid out to be easy to read with quick checklists and links to reliable news sources and also graphical elements with a little something humorous said Reece.
Physical Newspapers and Magazines
All CNM libraries have physical newspapers and magazines available to read, although the title selections will vary by branch. You can scan the articles to email them to yourself or save them on a flash drive. The amount of back issues will vary based on the branch as well.