Communication studies faculty to help teach-out learners navigate fake news

April 17, 2017
Written By:
Laurel Thomas

ANN ARBOR—This past week Facebook served up advice on spotting fake news, Google rolled out a “fact check” tool, and a major publication in the United Kingdom apologized to the First Lady of the United States for what is being called a fake news article.

The proliferation of news stories that are either downright false or, at the very least, misleading is at the heart of the University of Michigan’s second teach-out.

Three faculty members from U-M’s Department of Communication Studies will present “Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts” to enrolled online learners, beginning Friday, April 21.

Modeled after the historic U-M teach-ins of the 1960s, teach-outs offer participants the chance to learn about current topics at their own pace any time during the weekend that the materials are posted online. In March, U-M President Mark Schlissel announced four teach-outs that would pilot the Academic Innovation series on the edX online education platform.

The goal of this teach-out is to help people discern fact from fiction in the news, said Brian Weeks, assistant professor of communication studies and faculty associate at the Center for Political Studies.

“They are inundated with information online. Much of this fake news looks quite real so it’s hard for people to really know what’s true and what’s not,” Weeks said, adding that the teach-out is for anyone interested in becoming a better consumer of news.

Participants should expect to learn how to:

  • Distinguish between “news” and other forms of information
  • Evaluate the credibility of information claims
  • Identify psychological biases and logical fallacies that influence how we interpret information
  • Critically examine a news story and identify how it was produced

Josh Pasek, assistant professor of communication studies and faculty associate at the Center for Political Studies, said the team will help online learners better understand how the news process works, including how journalists do their work and how news is curated.

“We’ve long taught people that the stuff you pay attention to in order to be a good democratic citizen is the stuff that looks like news.” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware of what happens under the hood.

“Increasingly, it’s become difficult for people to distinguish between high-quality information and information that somebody just thinks up and wants to put out there. And that’s because the tools that are used to distinguish really good journalism from what ordinary people might write have become less and less different.”

The attention to fake news has increased dramatically in recent months because of the abundance of it in the last election cycle, Weeks said, but added the problem with news today is not just that which is made up.

“There’s always been misleading and false information in politics,” he said. “And certainly there’s been a blurring of the boundaries between entertainment content and news content, so that makes it a little more difficult for people to distinguish what is real journalism and what is entertainment.”

This is compounded, Pasek said, by our tendency toward news that suits our personal and political agendas.

“When you look at something like your Facebook news feed, which is how we get a lot of our information, it’s not curated by professional editors; it’s curated by our friends,” he said. “That’s nice, because the news is more relevant to us in a variety of ways, but it also means the news we see can be more biased toward our viewpoint and may not have the quality level that it used to.”

Weeks said the team also will talk about imposter websites and manipulated content such as photos.

“Anybody who is struggling with this idea of what is real information today would benefit from taking the teach-out,” he said.

Teaching alongside Weeks and Pasek is award-winning author and journalist Will Potter, the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism and a Knight-Wallace fellow at U-M.


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