News, Fake or Real

Yesterday, Clif and I went to the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) for a panel discussion hosted by its Senior College and the College of Arts & Sciences. The topic, as indicated in this post’s title, was News, Fake or Real. The panel consisted of Bill Nemitz, a noted Maine journalist and columnist; Mal Leary, a senior political correspondent for Maine Public Radio; and Jessica Lowell, a journalist at the Kennebec Journal.

Fake news is an issue very dear to my heart. Indeed, the notion that facts do matter is a central theme in my YA fantasy novel Maya and the Book of Everything.

It is my guess that as soon as humans acquired language, despotic leaders have told lies to maintain power and stroke their egos. However, in the United States, the current administration has brought lying to a new high—or low, depending on your point of view. On Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s advisors, even came up with a term—“alternative facts”—that many of us had never heard before. When Chuck Todd, the host of Meet the Press, insisted that alternative facts were falsehoods, Conway did not even have the grace to look ashamed and instead barrelled on with her talking points.

At yesterday’s forum, Marilyn Canavan, the moderator, ended her introduction by asking, how are we to distinguish between news and opinion? How will we know if news is fake?

Jessica Lowell suggested that readers need to think critically to separate news from opinion. And fact from fiction. She noted how easy it was to share things on Facebook without knowing where the news was coming from and even admitted to having done this herself. (So have I.) Now, Lowell is more careful, and she stressed how important it was to stop and pause before sharing anything, to check the source.

Mal Leary spoke of how fake news often has a sliver of truth. As an example, he used a recent story about chocolate becoming extinct.  The bombastic headline was designed to draw people in, providing the site with lots of clicks, which in turn gives data and potential customers to advertisers. As it turned out, the article explained how climate change might affect chocolate production at some time in the future. But right now, there is no reason to hoard Hershey Chocolate Bars. Leary warned the audience to beware of websites that have weird endings such as .co. For example, is not the same as Leary also warned us to beware of websites with no “About” section and of single-source stories.

Bill Nemitz told an amusing but sobering tale of how his publicity photo was stolen by “T.S. Hunter”—most certainly not the author’s real name—whose website was putting out information to disparage a victim of a police shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. T.S. Hunter had even constructed a snappy bio that described how he was a poet, the owner of a health food store, had two goldendoodles, and was in love with a muse with a guitar. (I must admit that as a writer, I was impressed by these specific details.) Nemitz pursued the matter, and eventually the blog was taken off the Internet.

Nemitz then defined fake news. First, it was news that was 100% false, such as many of the stories found in supermarket tabloids. Second, there was a gray area, which included news with a slant or a bias but had a grain of truth. Third, fake news could be pure propaganda. Fourth, it could be pieces that misuse data or scientific evidence. Fifth, it could come about because of sloppy or imprecise writing. Sixth, and perhaps most important, fake news is not news with which you disagree.

A Q & A followed the panel discussion, and many good points were raised and discussed. This forum started at 2:00 p.m. and ended at 4:00 p.m. Such a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon and such a relevant topic. Many thanks, UMA.

To end this piece, I am posting some pictures of UMA’s small but lovely campus in winter. And readers, not one of these pictures is fake.


37 thoughts on “News, Fake or Real”

  1. This sounds like a worthwhile seminar, especially in these days of a lot of naughtiness online that can destroy nations and all–

    1. Such a timely discussion and such a pretty little campus. The point evergreens really make it look like Maine.

    1. Sure is! But I am still convinced that facts do matter, even if some people do their best (or worst!) to prove otherwise.

  2. A very interesting discussion and post Laurie. I guess we are just starting to educate ourselves on the rapid changes with the advent of social media. Before I retired as a Literacy teacher (5 years ago) we started to teach how to read critically…that just would not have been on the radar years ago.

    1. Thanks for the perspective. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how things have changed and accelerated.

    1. Sure is! And such a good forum. When I was going over my notes, I was especially struck by the depth and breadth of the remarks made by the journalists.

  3. Political lying seems to be quite popular these days. Unfortunately the lies are often more entertaining than the truth, and this gives them a lot of traction in social media.

    1. Unfortunately, so true. Donald Trump became quite the media darling during the last election. And now look where we are.

    1. Thanks, Clare! I looked closely at the leaves but still wasn’t sure what kind of tree it was. I, too, was thinking maple, but it’s unusual for a maple tree to keep its leaves in the winter.

  4. A topic near and dear to my heart. I don’t think we even know what ‘news’ is any more. Besides the fakeness (I think I just made a new word), you have to add the entertainment piece, the fear mongering, and our loss of common sense. Add all that together, and you have idiots (did I say that) willing to believe anything anyone says especially if it is on social media. Once FB became something it wasn’t intended to be, I stopped spending time there. I limit myself to about ten or less minutes every other day. My life and my attitude have gotten more positive with less social media and less news in my day’s activities. Now, you’ve heard more from me on the topic than you ever wanted to. 🙂

    1. Not at all! I was pleased by your thoughtful comment. This is a topic that needs to be addressed on a regular basis. The scammers, both high and low, are out there. It’s up to readers and listeners to beware and to verify. At the forum, I spoke with a friend who related how a friend of hers was taken in by a scam to buy a puppy. I won’t go into the details of the story, but here is the result: My friend’s friend lost $500 because of the scam, and there was no puppy.

  5. I grew up hearing my parents say, “Don’t believe everything you read.” I don’t think they would be believe the degree to which that is true today.

  6. Lovely photos of the campus and what a great topic for discussion. After reading the paragraph describing the types of fake news it was obvious how easy it is for the real news to become lost and distorted, especially in our current political atmosphere, and how important it is to be attentive. Thanks for sharing!🙂

  7. J > Very interesting piece. And whilst your photos are almost certainly selective (if only subconsciously so) they are not intended to skew or exploit our preconceptions of, or alter our view of, the UMA. Neither is your throw-away description of the campus as ‘small’. ;~)

    1. No, indeed. The pictures are an accurate depiction of the campus, as is the word “small.” To me, small is beautiful, and what a beautiful little campus. 😉

    1. It really has. I have my trusted sources—NPR, the New York Times, The Washington Post. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes, but they correct them when they do.

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