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Faculty discuss fake news in an era of distraction and misinformation

Alternative facts. Spin. Fake news.

Perhaps the only certain truth about them is they’ve been around for a long time and they’re likely to persist as long as human beings continue to crave and disseminate information.

Thursday afternoon, a panel of Creighton University faculty convened for “The Truth about Lies: Fake News, Alternative Facts, and Living in a Post-Truth World,” the latest in the Research from All Angles series sponsored by the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (CURAS).

“It’s an important and interesting time for journalism and communication, generally,” said CURAS Director Juliane Soukup, BS’93, PhD, in introducing the panel.

Sue Crawford, PhD, of the Department of Political Science; Michael Hawkins, PhD, of the Department of History; Carol Zuegner, BS’77, PhD, of the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing; and Martin Hulce, PhD, of the Department of Chemistry spoke and entertained questions for 90 minutes during the panel, touching topics from massaging the truth in political campaigns to Walter Cronkite’s nightly signoff line to plagiarism and fakery in scientific research.

The conversation keyed on the difficulty of getting the whole truth, leaving nothing out, parsing fact from less-than-fact, and doing so on deadline. The burden on journalists to accomplish those feats might be surpassed only by the obligation of the news-consuming public to take in that information — coming now from more outlets than ever before — make sense of it, and winnow from it some version of the truth that fits into the narrative a person has created to make sense of his or her slice of the world.

All panelists said a healthy dose of suspicion is one defense against the vagaries of fake news.

“The onus is on us to be able to look at the content, the headline, the arguments being made, and I, for myself, have to decide whether to trust it or not,” said Hawkins, who argued that all communication, even ostensibly objective journalism, comes with some form of agenda-setting on behalf of the person or entity conveying the information. “My advice is to cultivate an inherent skepticism of all of it.”

Speaking as a longtime reporter now researching and teaching journalism at Creighton, Zuegner said the struggle for getting all the truth in print or broadcast is nothing new and not a battle reporters are ever likely to win, but the volume of information seems to have amplified while the time reporters have for newsgathering and depth has tightened.

“Reporters try very hard to get as much information as they can and to convey it as clearly and truthfully as they can,” she said. “The story, though, is the people who call me back. Of course, there are multiple sides to every story, but it comes down to that. And I think journalism has done itself a disservice by purporting to be able to tell it all. Walter Cronkite ended his evening broadcast every night saying, ‘That’s the way it is,’ as if the world could be summed up in one half hour.”

The remedy, Zuegner added, may be in conceiving of the news in a new way.

“Think of the news as a curriculum, rather than as a single story,” she said. “Something might appear in a newspaper, then a magazine, then ultimately, a book, each time gaining more depth and insight.” Zuegner added: “Read everything with skepticism — not cynicism — but skepticism.”

What becomes news, especially the actions and utterances of public figures and the findings of sundry groups, was also a question for the panel.

Crawford, who in addition to her academic work is also a Nebraska state senator representing eastern Sarpy County, said that from her dual roles in academia and in the Unicameral, wrangling a true story continues to be a difficult prospect.

“One fundamental truth about lies in political science is that when lies are repeated, they gain credence,” Crawford said. “The best way to lie is to repeat it over and over again.”

Even when someone in the press or government steps in to put a halt to misinformation or disinformation, Crawford said, that person often ends up repeating the lie on the way toward debunking it. Just that little reminder is enough to perpetuate the original lie.

Thus far, Crawford said, there has been little political science research into the 2016 election and an alleged disinformation campaign undertaken by Russia and other internal and external actors. But, she said, research on mis- and disinformation spread about the Affordable Care Act has borne out the idea that the simple telling and retelling of a false claim is enough to wend the lie into people’s minds as truth.

Hulce said there’s a process to skepticism, along the lines of the scientific method, that can also be useful for detecting news that doesn’t seem to add up.

“Observation, experimentation, discussion, public debate,” he said. “All these things go into making a conclusion as to whether something is true. It’s why you should be a skeptic.”

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