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, Newsweek.com.co is not the same as Newsweek.com. 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.