Fresno State faculty and students express concerns with media literacy

Bundles of Chicago Tribune Saturday editions are stacked for delivery at the Freedom Center. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Fresno State students, faculty, and staff are facing two challenges in regards to how to consume media: being media literate and identifying fake news. 

And with the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election coming up, these two challenges are becoming even more difficult.

“The real responsibility is on the shoulders of the news consumer,” said Jim Boren, former Fresno Bee executive editor and executive director of Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust. 

According to the Center for Media Literacy, media literacy is referred to as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.” Media literacy allows people to develop and improve critical thinking skills, as well as understand why media communicates to the audience the way that it does.

The idea of fake news has been an issue for many years, and misinformation has been spreading quickly through social media sites since the 2016 election. One conspiracy movement that has gained a large amount of traction on social media is QAnon, which suggests the world is run by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who are plotting against Trump while operating a child sex-trafficking ring. QAnon is one example of how social media can spread misinformation very quickly.

Boren describes the problems with social media in regards to the spread of fake news and the difficulties of improving media literacy skills can stem from the presence of bots or automated programs in social media sites, which are designed to mimic real people.

“A bot is just a computer program and algorithm that spits out these stories, thousands and thousands and thousands of times, and people tend to repeat those,” Boren said.

Misinformation can also come from the use of well known people, including politicians and celebrities. In fact, a study from the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford on misinformation regarding COVID-19, “misinformation from politicians, celebrities, and other prominent figures made up 20% of the claims, yet they made up 69% of total social media engagement.” 

In recent years, social media companies have attempted to limit the spread of fake news on their websites, with some companies, including Facebook, changing their news feeds in order to stop fake news from appearing on their users’ feeds. Twitter has also gotten involved in the process of eliminating misinformation on their site. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Twitter labeled some posts as fake news, and it posted links to factual information on COVID-19 on posts that the company feels may contain some misinformation.

Despite these companies’ efforts to limit misinformation from getting out to the public, Boren is very skeptical about the accuracy of these efforts. 

On the Institute for Media and Public Trust’s website, Boren writes that these efforts are “a start, but we can’t rely on social media sites alone to do the work that we should be doing to ensure that we are basing our opinions on verified information.”

Another issue with the election in particular has to deal with political advertisements. Regardless of what is on the ballot, there are different claims about politicians or propositions that provide sources with dates of access, with no context.

Boren reflected on his experience as a political journalist, spending his time fact-checking claims being made in a political advertisement.

“I would dissect a political ad and say, this is what this candidate said, these are the facts, and this is what this candidate said,” Boren said. “If you see some of the ads and they’ll have a news source, that’s probably a legitimate news story, but what they pulled out of that story you need to go to the news story to check out if it does accurately reflect that.”

Boren also talks about how he looked at multiple news outlets and their coverage on California propositions, and the importance of doing so. He said that we should see what is true about claims that political campaigns make during advertisements.

In addition to social media, news channels have also proven to be a place where fake news is spread. 

In regards to the pandemic, Boren explains that Fox News claimed that “when the coronavirus first came out, they said it was a hoax. It wasn’t serious, it’s no worse than the flu, more people die of the flu and all those have been proven wrong.

Fresno State senior Lorena Vargas does not “go on social media at all.” 

For students including Vargas, this issue of the media’s COVID-19 coverage has gotten to the point where “you can’t really trust anything you hear or read nowadays.” 

Misinformation is also able to spread on television. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, areas of the country exposed to television programming that downplayed the severity of the pandemic saw greater numbers of cases and deaths—because people didn’t follow public health precautions.

News organizations can also choose what information gets out to the public, in terms of the word choice of a story that can possibly tell consumers explicitly what to think. Some organizations also allow for misinformation to get sent out to the public.

In 2019, MSNBC was airing a discussion about ousted Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, when a graphic aired a picture of a white supremacist who was also named Richard Spencer. And in January, Matt Gutman of ABC News falsely reported that all four of Kobe Bryant’s daughters were aboard the helicopter that killed Bryant, even though the truth is that Bryant and his daughter Gianna were the only members of the Bryant family board of the helicopter. 

Errors such as the mistakes mentioned above can provide viewers of these news companies with misinformation about the people being covered.

For some, these errors can contribute to the amount of bias that certain news organizations have on certain topics.

Fresno State sophomore Ashley Glougie said, “The news media has lots of leeway on what they can say and lots of false, or petty, news content is uploaded.”

“The news can easily mislead the public with this content,” Glougie said.

Vargas also added that media bias can affect her. “Everything is very biased and everything’s either black or white,” she said. “There’s no room for gray, there’s no room for lighter shades of black, there’s no like shades for white or anything. It’s either you’re in or out, there’s no in between about that.” 

“And that’s why I feel like most of us,” Vargas said. “We tend to say, ‘Oh they’re gonna promise it this and this and this,’ and we go for it, and they don’t go through with their promises.”

Boren recommends that his students get their information from multiple news sources.  “If you go to seven or eight different news sources, you’re probably going to find that the majority of them agree on what the basic facts are.” 

“If you’re just getting it from one of the cable TV outlets, and it may well be an opinion host like Tucker Carlson or Don Lemon or somebody, they have a point of view, and they’re going to spin the facts that way,” Boren said. “So, you want to get it from legitimate news sources and make sure there’s a variety of news sources that you’re checking.”

Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust also discusses eight different ways to prevent fake news from spreading as well as improve one’s media literacy skills. These include looking past personal biases, recognizing the source of the news item and using search engines to see if anyone has reported the same story. 

Other tips from the Institute include checking the link, looking at other stories, reading the “Contact Us” and “About Us” links, going to fact-checking websites and being skeptical about the information being read.

People who are interested in finding out more about the claims that are being made by the media can check out websites such as Snopes, PolitiFact or The Washington Post’s Fact Checker to see if the claims being made are true.
To find out more about fake news, media literacy and other related topics, log on to Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust website.

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