Watson Session E.9: The Matter of Fake News: Civic Literacies Within and Beyond the University

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Presenters: Eric Leake (Texas State University), Sean Rose (Texas State University), Cooper Day (University of Louisville), and Kate Howard (Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting)

This was an excellent panel, addressing media literacy and civic responsibility and giving ample ideas about “fake news,” source evaluation, and political bias in the classroom. As post-truth rhetoric, false stories like “Pizza Gate,” and attacks on the press have amplified media literacy’s importance, this panel proved especially helpful.

Eric Leake, “The Multiple Lives of News Stories”

After a brief introduction, panel chair Eric Leake delivered his presentation, “The Multiple Lives of News Stories,” based on a forthcoming chapter he has written in Civic Literacy in an Age of Disinformation and Misinformation. In his presentation, Leake built on fact checking and source evaluation techniques to analyze the systems and circulation of stories, framing this analysis as part of civic responsibility.

Citing Bruce McComiskey’s work on post-truth rhetoric, Leake argued that a defining factor of news literacies in a world of “post-truth rhetoric” is a readiness among some audiences to flatten authority, breaking down truth and falsehood entirely, making all “news” equal.

Leake then drew from John Trimbur’s “Composition and the Circulation of Writing” to articulate a classroom response. Trimbur recognizes the civic value in studying circulation in public discourse. Leake agreed and expanded the scope of this circulation beyond Trimbur into the Internet as part of public discourse. Also drawing from Trimbur, Leake said that he has his students trace the “transformation” of discourse, but focuses on news. By tracing a story through systems, assignments focus less on debunking one story and more on analyzing the system that leads to false or misleading news.

In a sequence of assignments, students follow news stories through databases, Google searches, and social media, searching out earlier iterations, tracing false images, skimming headlines, etc. Leake stressed that this literacy cannot be explored in one assignment and works throughout the semester. Leake provided enough background and guidance to work these models into the classroom, citing Michael Caulfield’s “going upstream” concept and Harris’ Rewriting as further influences.

Sean Rose, “Discipline of Verification: How Journalism Ethics Can Promote Critical Thinking in a Writing Classroom”

Sean Rose took a more journalistic approach, drawing from his previous work as a reporter. He wanted to emphasize how a “discipline of verification” can inform activities in the classroom.

At the heart of journalism, Rose noted, is a drive to verify. Along this vein, journalist Walter Lippmann urged reporters to avoid their personal bias by embracing the “scientific spirit,” trying to put their work in constant scrutiny regarding empirical fact. Similarly, Kovach and Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism argues for a “journalism of verification,” an approach where journalists heavily verify their reporting’s veracity and neutrality.

This spirit shows up in a practice that Rose terms “skeptical editing,” in which writers judge all statements line by line for facts, sourcing, ideological statements, assumptions, and editorializing. Employing this editing in the classroom with students, argued Rose, can help them see how journalistic methods wrestle with bias and  improve their own media literacy.

Cooper Day, “Reiteration and (Fake) News”

Next in the lineup, Cooper Day drew from his Master’s work on student reflection to look at news in “Reiteration and (Fake) News.” Day used reflection, repetition, parroting, and similar tasks to look at news circulation and uptake.

Day showcased a spectrum, starting with parroting, which may reframe stories literally but does not engage with them at a conceptual level. This moves to repetition and then to reiteration, which is more conceptual than literal, showing a deeper engagement and internalization. However, such an engagement may lead to a warped understanding and reiteration. Day then used this concept of reiteration to look at the news by focusing on the way it develops and circulates, similar to Leake. Day argued that the circulation supersedes typical writer-audience model as an “intra-active” (via Karen Barad) components impact source circulation and iteration.

Kate Howard, “Know Your News: Become a Better News Consumer”

Last, Kate Howard from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting drew from her experience as a journalist and public educator to discuss news and media literacy in “Know Your News: Become a Better News Consumer.”

First, Howard described changes she has noticed in recent years. For one, a stronger skepticism from some populations persists against traditional journalists, as audiences call reporting “fake news.” Similarly, she has noticed a self-selection among audiences: It is hard reach those who need this training. Third, audiences are often confused over different genres of journalism, like news versus editorials, especially as they blend on television and social media. Last, some people have more support and concern for trained, professional press.

To address these changes, in her sessions Howard describes what “real news” is and a five-step approach to vet it. Real news, she argued, takes time, has integrity, and it is accountable to its audience. While fake news writers may hide behind false bylines or vague mastheads, real journalists are people accountable to their audience and ethics. To vet news, you first look at its source–whatever information you glean about the author and outlet. Vague, sketchy information tends to mean unreliable news. Second, how well is the story written? What sourcing, headline, aesthetics, language, quotes, external links, etc., comprise it? Third, is the story too good to be true? Fourth, re-read and verify sources skeptically, being especially critical during breaking news. Last, question your own bias and look who else is reading the story.

Collectively, these provided a clear, easy-to-use heuristic for source evaluation, good for any classroom.

Conclusion

I got much from this panel, reflecting on our current media environment and considering classroom practices. I have had an interest in implementing more media literacy assignments and now feel more convinced of their value and role. The speakers gave specific approaches, especially when it came to source evaluation and circulation. They were thoughtful and well-grounded. This rich, productive panel covered a pertinent subject—and though it did not hide from darker implications of Trump and post-truth rhetoric, it provided a hope and direction for pedagogy and theory. They also welcomed e-mails for further questions.

About Author(s)

A PhD candidate in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric at Syracuse University, my current research interests center on questions of authorship and circulation. Current projects include work with game studies and fanfiction.

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