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By Daniel Dassow, Staff Writer,www.utdailybeacon.com

“The great thing about the internet is it’s unedited and the horrible thing about the internet is it’s unedited,” Harmon said. “So what happens is all the gatekeeping mechanisms for checking on, for example, the truthfulness of the story may be missing and so you have sort of a Gresham’s law of information where the bad tends to spread faster and be more accepted than the good, and this is especially true if the bad information fits with your existing point of view.”

It’s likely happened to every person in the UT community: a friend or family member shares a news story on social media that looks a little suspicious. On further examination, the story proves to be outright false, with photoshopped images, a clickbait headline and quotes from fake “experts.” But the person who shared it believes that every word is true. 

How do smart people fall for such blatant misinformation? According to professors in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, the problem is that Americans of all backgrounds and ages are missing what’s called media literacy, or knowledge of how news is created and how best to consume it. 

It used to be that media literacy was less vital for democracy than it is now, because much of the work of sifting out bad information was done by news organizations themselves. Now, news is consumed mainly on the internet and there are tens of thousands of media personalities writing and speaking without any editorial oversight. 

The job of rooting out fake news has largely fallen to individual Americans sitting on their phones, who do not know enough about how news media works to tell the good from the bad. 

Mark Harmon, a professor of journalism and electronic media who teaches courses in public opinion and media and democracy, says that misinformation on the internet is particularly seductive when it supports our preconceived opinions. 

“The great thing about the internet is it’s unedited and the horrible thing about the internet is it’s unedited,” Harmon said. “So what happens is all the gatekeeping mechanisms for checking on, for example, the truthfulness of the story may be missing and so you have sort of a Gresham’s law of information where the bad tends to spread faster and be more accepted than the good, and this is especially true if the bad information fits with your existing point of view.”

According to Harmon, the reason that false information is able to spread so quickly and fool so many Americans of good faith is not only because it is tailored to confirm our beliefs, but also because most Americans are not equipped with the necessary knowledge to recognize it for what it is. 

“What we need in our lives and in our educational system is a good sense of media literacy,” Harmon said. “We need to know how to evaluate claims, we need to know that well done studies are better than one person’s anecdote, we need to know how to use fact-checking sources … if we don’t know that and we don’t know how to argue, then we’re just going to be a cacophony of yelling past each other.”

Joy Jenkins, an assistant professor of journalism and electronic media, says that she was duped when she took a research survey on recognizing trolls, or internet users who intentionally spread false and hateful information. 

“I went and took it and I did not do well and I thought I understood that stuff pretty well,” Jenkins said. “Some of the trolling that goes on and the fake profiles and things are really difficult to discern, and not to mention things like deep fakes and what’s happening with visuals and videos and images. You know, it’s really some effective technology that’s being used, but it’s also kind of scary how easily it can fool people.”

As media literacy becomes more important in the digital age, it also becomes more elusive. Technologies like so-called “deep fakes,” in which faces are superimposed on images or videos to make it appear that someone said something they did not, are making it more difficult to tell when a story is fake. 

In order to combat the spread of misinformation, Jenkins and her fellow journalism professors advocate for media literacy education at a young age. In a recent survey that Jenkins took of journalism students and faculty, a majority reported that they did not receive education in media literacy until they were in college.

This survey and others like it suggest that, if they receive media literacy education at all, Americans are not being taught how to properly use search engines, how to determine if a news article is credible or not and how the work of journalism is even conducted until their internet habits are already formed. 

“Having those conversations at a young age is so vital because now kids are on their tablets when they’re really little and that never goes away,” Jenkins said. “None of us are above or beyond it. I think that media literacy is a lifelong effort we have to be a part of.” 

A crucial aspect of media literacy is the ability to differentiate between the kinds of media we consume on a daily basis. For his part, Harmon does not even like using the term “media,” because of its potential for broad generalizations that put fake news stories and trustworthy journalism on equal footing. 

Harmon, who has written opinion pieces for various local news outlets for decades, is concerned that many people cannot tell the basic difference between fact and opinion. This, he says, is another issue that has been exacerbated by the internet. 

“People often do not understand the difference between an opinion piece and an analysis piece and a straight news story and it’s very difficult to maintain that when they’re all appearing on the same screen at the same time in the same place,” Harmon said. “You have to notice the little clues about what you’re encountering.” 

The category of “media” covers much of the content that can be found online, including advertisements, podcasts, music, films and tweets from random people, as well as responsible journalism. Jenkins says that any discussion of media bias must take these differences into account. 

“When we talk about shifts and trends and things that are happening, we have to look at those industries specifically, and particularly look at the goals of the producers and what it is they’re trying to do,” Jenkins said. “To lump media under a single umbrella and then critique it isn’t super productive, doesn’t do a whole lot.”

It is fair to say that distrust of the news media has seldom been greater than in the present moment, and according to Jenkins, not all of the distrust is unfounded. News outlets have often not engaged with the stories or issues facing especially more rural and conservative Americans, a phenomenon that former President Donald Trump used to undergird much of his anti-media rhetoric.

In order to gain back that trust, Jenkins believes that journalists should make certain that their work is transparent to the public. 

“I think in particular for journalists, it’s really thinking about the value of transparency and helping their audience to see what it is they do, how they go about doing it, how they make decisions, how they choose sources, how they choose to present a story in terms of framing and photos and headlines,” Jenkins said. “I think there’s a lot of aspects of (the process) that journalists assume audiences understand, and they don’t.” 

Catherine Luther, a professor of journalism and the director of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, also believes strongly in the power of transparency as a solution to problems of media bias and distrust. 

“The digital world has allowed journalists to provide links to their sources and even the data that they accessed for their stories,” Luther said. “I believe providing such information is important and might lead to the rebuilding of public trust in the news media.”

It has become a popular refrain in recent years to say that the “liberal media” has never been more biased than it is right now, perhaps even too biased to be useful. Even accounting for the fact that much of this critique is aimed at cable news and social media, two sources long known for their entertainment value, journalism professors say the charge is untrue. 

Julie Andsager, a professor of journalism and electronic media who specializes in health and medicine reporting, said that media bias used to be much more prominent and acceptable than it is by today’s standards of journalistic objectivity. 

“History shows us that the news media were far more biased than they are today back in the 1700s and 1800s,” Andsager said. “Today, we’re used to the TV news system from the 1950s onward, where ABC, CBS and NBC had to compete with each other and therefore couldn’t maintain biases. Since we have 24/7 news and many more outlets, that presumption has faded away, and it does seem to appear that news media are ‘biased,’ whether they actually are or not.”

All of the media illiteracy and distrust of the news media has led to a chapter of American history that some have labeled as “post-fact” or “post-truth,” where the truth matters less than opinion. 

Andsager said that in a time of COVID, when the public relies on the news media for health messaging, media illiteracy can become an impediment to survival. 

“Science reporting has clearly taken a big hit in the last couple of years, as political framing sought to overcome facts,” Andsager said. “If we concede that ‘facts don’t matter,’ that means science doesn’t matter. Look at the Idahoans who encouraged their kids to burn face masks last week (or so) – they’re teaching those children that science doesn’t matter. I hate to think about possible ramifications for the future.”