On September 17, the Mattapoisett Public Library hosted the second in a series of three civically-oriented discussions sponsored in partnership with the Tri-Town libraries in Marion and Rochester. Visiting the Mattapoisett Public Library were Mindy Todd of NPR, WCAI radio, and Paul Pronovost, editor-in-chief of The Cape Cod Times, to discuss the rising issues around fake versus real news and its dissemination.
Pronovost started the discussion by saying, “Fake news isn’t new.” He then explained that ten years ago the “phenomenon of misinformation” began with the advent of the Internet, which was intended “to get us more deeply involved, but we are now more shallowly informed.” Pointing to the last presidential election as a sharp turning point in the sharing of sensationalized incorrect information, Pronovost said, “The elections proved that fake news affects us all.”
According to Todd, the term “alternate facts” was really spin – an attempt to sway the populace’s thinking in a particular direction – but that, of course, “alternate facts aren’t facts at all.”
In an age when technology allows humans around the globe to communicate in less than a heartbeat’s time, Pronovost said, in the past, newsrooms were the gatekeepers where information could be vetted for accuracy. Today, however, “Spin-masters can go directly to you, get to you first, get you onboard,” pushing inaccuracy into the public domain. Those bits of misleading and incorrect data spread, taking on a life of their own, he indicated. “People are passing things around with no fact checking,” he asserted.
Using the old adage of “if it’s too good to be true, it isn’t true,” Todd urged the audience to consider the source of any information or story they read or hear.
Dishearteningly enough, “Fake news is three times more likely to be shared on social media than real news,” Pronovost said.
Todd shared that news at one time was considered a public service, “but now it’s entertainment.” She said ratings, not accuracy, have become the measure by which news broadcasts are measured.
And both news veterans believed that people aren’t taking the time to ensure that what they are exposed to from the Internet is real or not.
“People pick what they want to hear, what supports their views, what they already believe, rather than challenging the source,” Pronovost said. “When there are so many voices to be heard, it’s hard to hear them all.”
Of mainstream media outlets, both Todd and Pronovost said time is spent fact-checking information, with Todd saying, “We spend time breaking down false news. We check our sources. We are not going to give them a forum to spread falsehoods.” She said mainstream media uses editors who question stories and verify information before reporting it.
But as long as money can be made via clicks on websites, fake news will continue to be problematic, the duo concurred.
So how does one ensure that information received, whether in print, social media, radio or television, is in fact factual? The bottom line is – do your own fact checking.
The library provided handouts to help the public use the Internet to secure real information and to check the facts.
For students and young people, there is www.newseumED.org, a platform for learning about fake news and the “complexities of digital citizenship, including students’ active role in the flow of information.”
Another handout listed a variety of Internet sites, such as www.izitru.com, that can help in determining if images posted on social media are real or provide guidelines on information sharing.
Todd and Pronovost urged the attendees to do their homework, verify information using resources they trust, and to question any information that seemed suspicious.
But probably the most important shared moment was when retired children’s librarian Linda Burke said, “We have a responsibility to encourage the coming generations to question media.” Todd and Pronovost believe we should all be doing just that on a daily basis.
The next civic presentation is scheduled for October 24 at 6:30 pm in Rochester’s Joseph H. Plumb Memorial Library when Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Robert Macedo of SkyWarn and the National Weather Service will discuss “Climate Change and You.”
By Marilou Newell