In 1835 astronomers discovered a new species they dubbed Vespertilio-homo, or bat-man, living on the moon. This shocking revelation was originally published in the New York Sun, a leading newspaper of the day. You might have guessed that this story, aptly dubbed the Great Moon Hoax, isn’t true.
So called “fake news” is nothing new. Questionable reporting has been around since the dawn of the printed press and the human capacity to deceive goes back much farther. One big difference between then and now is the availability of information.
Gone are the days when finding an answer meant opening an encyclopedia or calling the library. Today, a quick web search performs this function with sometimes dubious results. “Rather than there being a scarcity of information, people now have way too much. A lot of what we do as librarians is teach them how to filter out what’s not as useful or as credible,” said UW Tacoma Reference & Instruction Librarian Marisa Petrich.
Petrich is leading a three-part workshop on fake news being put together by the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences and the UW Tacoma Library. The workshops are skills-based and meant to foster critical thinking. “Rather than me walking through a bunch of slides, we’re going to be doing a lot of exercises and small group discussions,” said Petrich.
The first workshop is scheduled for Monday, March 13 at 12 pm inside William Philip Hall and will focus on developing a common understanding of the term fake news. “I think part of what we’re experiencing is a crisis of vocabulary,” said Petrich. “A lot of times when people say fake news they mean something else like the outlet is biased or the journalism is sloppy.”
Use of the phrase fake news has risen dramatically thanks in large part to the 2016 election. The current argument over what counts as journalism has drawn sharp criticism from all sides. Petrich hopes to sidestep this sometimes corrosive debate. “It’s really important that people don’t feel like they can’t participate because they have a particular ideology,” she said. For this reason many of the fake news examples Petrich plans to use come from outside of this year’s election.
The flip-side of these workshops is an examination of good journalism. “We’re going to spend some time in the first session thinking about when journalism is done well, about what that looks like, how it’s produced and how that conflicts with what we’re currently experiencing,” said Petrich. This discussion includes an examination of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and what makes a good source for a story.
The second and third workshops haven’t yet been scheduled but the topics have been decided. The next session will center on helping participants evaluate claims made in the media. The third session will cover bias, both on an individual level and in different news outlets.
Petrich hopes the cumulative effect of these workshops will be the creation of a savvier and more thoughtful news consumer. This is the same philosophy she and other librarians at UW Tacoma use when helping students. “We teach them how to find good information, how to evaluate it and determine what is good and useful versus what is a maybe a little dodgier,” she said.
Having this skillset is important because you never know when someone will try to convince you a species of bat-men lives on the moon or that nuclear contamination caused flowers to mutate.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org