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Real Dangers of Fake News

How and why media relations pros need to step up.

December 8, 2016
 
 

The proliferation and impact of fake news has dominated the real news in the weeks following the election, and despite myriad articles and broadcast stories, I am not sick of hearing about it. I believe that shining a spotlight on this misleading and arguably dangerous practice is critically necessary. And research has shown that despite all the attention on the dangers of fake news, not everyone is getting the message—including college students.

According to a recent Stanford University study of middle, high school and college students, most teenagers can’t determine when news is fake. “And, in 2016, we would hope college students who spend hours each day online would look beyond a .org URL and ask who's behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But in every case, at every level, we were taken back by students’ lack of preparation,” wrote the researchers.

Faculty and student affairs offices across the country are stepping up to help educate students and some students are taking up the issues themselves. But as media relations professionals we have some responsibilities, too, if only to prepare for the direct impact on the way in which we do our jobs.

It has never been hard to find faculty and administrators who view journalists through a skeptical lens. I have met many people on all types of college campuses who are very clear about their distrust of the media and reporters’ intentions. Though not all of it is justified, and a lot of it can be attributed to misunderstandings of the journalistic process, there are many academicians who feel they have been mistreated by the media.

This mindset is a serious barrier for those of us responsible for facilitating news coverage of an institution. The recent attention on fake news, and particularly the large volume of it, is likely to make the campus skeptics even less likely to participate in media outreach. It’s our job to make them see why opting-out may contribute to the larger problem. After all, the faculty members on our campuses have performed balanced, unbiased research and can inform the public of facts. Without their participation, those left to fill the void may not be sharing the most accurate information.

And that’s not all. We need to give reluctant media participants peace of mind as well, by making sure we do our homework and proactively provide all necessary background (especially with newer, less established, outlets whose names faculty may not be familiar with) to confirm that opportunities have been carefully vetted and thought through. It’s our job to assess any risk and ease fears before presenting media opportunities – and that includes pointing out biases of the outlet, reporters or likely online responders to the piece.

And there’s another service we can help provide to our institutions – particularly those of us at institutions without journalism faculty. We can serve as resources to educate students and others about how to identify fake news. Consider arranging infosessions, incorporating tips like these or these from Merrimack College Professor Melissa Zimdars (whose list of fake news sites went viral) into current media training, and serving as guest speakers in classrooms and at student organization meetings. For those who already send a weekly email of media hits to campus, consider including a public service announcement about fake news and the credibility of outlets.

Unfortunately clickbait makes money, which means fake news isn’t going away anytime soon. And the stakes are getting higher. From a potential influence on the presidential election to Monday’s pizza restaurant shooting in Washington, D.C., it’s more critical than ever that people understand how to recognize the legitimacy of information. As media relations professionals, we are in a position to combat the problem that the Stanford University researchers described as "dismaying," "bleak" and "[a] threat to democracy.”

And I take this responsibility very seriously.

I encourage faculty, staff and students to share resources they value when combating fake news in the comments section of this post. I also welcome guest posts with concrete advice for addressing this issue on our campuses.

 

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