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VOL. 42 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 9, 2018

Being good consumers in a ‘fake news’ world

UT professor helps students navigate bias, understand evolving media landscape

By Jeannie Naujeck

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There may be a war on the media but UT-Knoxville students still say they believe in journalism.

Despite accusations that the mainstream media reports “fake news” – and even physical attacks on reporters at political rallies – students at UT’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media remain optimistic that journalists can make a difference.

Two courses, the History of Mass Communications and Introduction to the History and Principles of Journalism and Electronic Media, have seen increased enrollment this fall. And over the past couple of years, the introductory course has attracted more students from across campus than in prior years.

Long before there was an internet, students at the University of Tennessee have used this 97-ton dolomite boulder at the corner of Volunteer Boulevard and Pat Head Summitt Street as a message board.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“I think that’s probably a good indication that students are yearning to learn more about our current media landscape,” says Amber Roessner, associate professor and the author of numerous books examining media and American culture.

“They understand the environment they are in, so they are realistic, but I also think they are optimistic in terms of wanting to change the media landscape for the better.”

Roessner’s classes cover everything from Watergate’s aspirational moment of investigative journalism to how to be media literate at a time when anyone can “publish” opinion masquerading as fact.

“One of the biggest lessons that I teach my students is to consider the source of their news, and how they source their material,” she adds.

Amber Roessner, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee and the author of numerous books examining media and American culture, lectures students enrolled in one of her increasingly popular classes.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“Are they reaching out to credible news sources? Are they being transparent with readers about that source material?”

“And then we talk about considering agendas – news agendas of legacy media outlets, news agendas of newsmakers such as presidents and world leaders – and to evaluate all of those elements when they encounter a piece of material.”

Students in Roessner’s classes cover such topics as an 1835 New York newspaper series on life being discovered on the moon to the Washington Post’s landmark Watergate investigation of 1970s.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

In the Freedom Forum’s 2018 State of the First Amendment survey, Americans said they consider fake news even more objectionable than hate speech on social media. And three out of four Americans said they support the First Amendment.

However, 40 percent of respondents could not name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Only 36 percent could name one.

Students in Roessner’s class are required to know all five freedoms – freedom of the press, speech, religion, assembly and petition. They also learn about the pioneering investigative work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of women and people of color such as Ida B. Wells, Ida Tarbell and Nellie Bly, whose work was often dismissed.

And they learn how journalists gained a role as political power brokers during the 1970s, when campaigns developed sophisticated image-crafting apparatuses, and the effect it had on the public perception of figures like Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

It all ties into the rise of Donald Trump, a media figure before he became president, who has attempted to control his image through the media by promoting stories that are self-serving and dismissing any negative facts that surface as “fake news.”

That’s nothing new, Roessner points out.

“I always stress to my students that, throughout the course of American history, during times of international and sometimes even domestic conflict, our First Amendment rights have often been constrained.

“Since the Nixon administration and beyond, we have had presidents who have waged a war on the media.

“But the other constant is that we have spoken back and demanded those rights and that’s why we still have them.’’

Students are often surprised to learn that the term “fake news” wasn’t invented during the 2016 election cycle. In fact, it’s as old as news itself.

Fake news originated in the 19th century as hoax journalism and yellow journalism. In 1835, to boost circulation, the New York Sun published a series of six fantastical articles about astronomers’ purported discovery of life on the moon. None of them contained a grain of truth, but readers ate it up.

And in 1898, the sensational headlines and misleading or false newspaper copy called yellow journalism helped create the backdrop for the Spanish-American War.

“Newspaper publishers at that time were convinced that readers were bringing a level of critical thinking to their engagement with the work, so they weren’t concerned that it was not a true piece of journalism,” Roessner explains.

But beginning in the mid-20th century, she adds, an anti-intellectual climate began to surface, and with it the devaluation of critical thinking. With the rise of the internet, consumers are now so saturated with information that it’s become even more difficult to discern the truth.

“We are the problem too. We are not actively, critically evaluating the credibility of those channels,” Roessner says.

But Roessner hopes to turn the tide, starting on campus. Over the next few years, UT will be reevaluating the classes offered as general education requirements. Roessner is lobbying to make her introductory media class one of them.

“These media literacy skills are so important,” she says.

“We have a broken system, but I’m really hopeful that we can fix it by offering our larger community these skills, and I think it starts here.”

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