League of Women Voters offers insights on how to deal with “fake news”

Few of us remember how the term became part of our everyday lexicon. We think we know it when we hear it, but often we’re not sure. The League of Women Voters brought two experts in the field to offer a short course on the subject to the City of Centennial Community Room May 22. The group of 75 interested citizens listened attentively.

Christopher Jennings, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication at Metropolitan State University (MSU) with a focus on digital media. He previously led the development of an online learning institute for the Library of Congress. Jennings opened the conversation by citing a long history of media misuse and the elimination of the fairness doctrine in the 1980s, along with agenda setting by some news outlets.

Genine Plunkett is the manager of Reference Services at the Denver Public Library (DPL). She is passionate about teaching information literacy skills, especially how to spot fake news. Before joining DPL, Plunkett worked for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Central Arkansas Library System. She holds a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh and has worked in public libraries for 22 years.

Jennings said that fake news is effective because lies spread faster than the truth on social media, as many (former) politicians would attest. Asked why, he said that lies tend to be more interesting than the truth and that those writing them have the luxury of being creative and fantastic in how they tell them.

Plunkett shared that sources like Google may have correct basic facts, but how they deliver them is not policed. The most popular answer may or may not be true, just popular. She reminded the audience that technology has made it easier to only see news from those sources with whom we agree, even unintentionally. Additionally, trolls and bots affect the input we receive without our knowing it.

What should we do in a world of manipulated input? Jennings put it plainly: There is no substitute for critical thinking. He even teaches a freshman level class in that specific subject at MSU.

Plunkett offered some practical tools to use in trying to sort out fact from fiction. When receiving input, consider the source. If it’s on the internet, look carefully at the website address for authenticity. Consider whether the posting is news or opinion. Research the author. Look up supporting sources. Ask an expert. Most importantly, check your own biases, which can be challenging. Researching facts is not difficult if you are willing to take the time and make the effort.

Jennings named some websites that she trusts for help. They were politifact.com, factcheck.org, snopes.com, and washingtonpost.com/fact-checker. She also recommended that people consider taking DPL classes on how to spot fake news, which are offered in multiple locations.

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