In a recently concluded global conference in New York on ‘news literacy’, the assembled teachers and professionals expressed concern at the alarming rate in which ‘fake news’ was invading the media, specially the social media. They realised that the problem was too large for any organisation to curb it. The ‘credibility’ threat to the media, for its own ‘misdeeds’, was a reality. Added to this was the monster of fake news.
The media department of Stonybrook University, which organised the conference, has already put up a fairly elaborate website on tackling fake news. In fact, the university has developed lesson plans, which are freely available for schools and colleges to adapt them to their own courses on media studies. While there were views that suggested the creation of ‘pressure groups’ at the top echelons of academic circles to make these courses on fake news compulsory in media teaching
(considering the importance and the social nature of the threat), there were others who suggested that a ‘grass root’ movement should be created among the teaching community to tackle the menace.
Today, media scholars would like to describe ‘readers’ as ‘news consumers’ because of the changed participation of the audience in both news consumption and creation. The grass root movement is aimed at creating a graded lesson plan, which can be a ‘news awareness programme’ suitable for students at the school level as well as for those aiming at specialised media courses at the university. While there were lots of debates on the course content, most members agreed upon developing a ‘critical’ approach to evaluate news.
First of all, attempts were made to delineate information ‘neighbourhoods’ and make their purposes clearly identifiable: ‘journalism’, for example, is meant to ‘inform’; entertainment is meant to amuse; promotion is meant to sell; and propaganda is meant to build mass support. These neighbourhoods exist too close together today in the media world. But the reader (or news consumer) has to develop the skill to identify their different intentions. In the social media, ‘raw’ information bypasses all the institutional barriers to sell, publicise, entertain, inform, and advocate -sometimes all at the same time ! Distinguishing the outputs of these information neighbourhoods, in the changed circumstances of the media, is not an easy task today.
The grass root campaigns, starting at the academic circles, both in schools and colleges, should create a persuasive environment that will make the news consumers aware of the distinct purposes of these closely-knit neighbourhoods. As a second advanced step, the news consumer should learn some of the basic steps on how to identify fakery. The best way is to closely look for the ‘source’ of the news: is it an independent source or is it coming from a source with personal interest? Are ‘multiple’ people saying the same thing? Can the data be verified? Is it authoritative? Has the source been named? Is there an eye-witness or a participant in the information source?
These check-countercheck processes, which are usually resorted to by professional journalism outfits are now being brought to the open by universities like Stonybrook since fake news has become too big a social issue to be tackled by any individual institution on its own. It needs mass participation by every news consumer. When professional journalism and the academic world work together, they can create wonders.