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Forum addresses ‘fake news’ at Shepherd

By Staff | Apr 17, 2017

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Finding truth in the news is now a whole lot harder.

That’s the general consensus of a panel of political science and media experts in a symposium on politics and the media at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education auditorium at Shepherd University on Wednesday.

Panel members agree the birth of social media has essentially overhauled where and how we get the news.

“Obviously, social media has impacted what we know, and what others purport to know,” said Dr. Joseph Robbins, associate professor of political science and chairman of the political science department. “This rise in social media also influences how we think, how we process information, and also – by extension – affected how political operatives do what it is they do.”

Adding to today’s real news-fake news confusion is a rhetorical device called “deflection,” which politicians use when handling an unpleasant or potentially image damaging political issue, said Dr. Aart Holtslag, assistant professor of political science at Shepherd University.

“If I cannot bring the preferred, favorable interpretation of the facts to the foreground with the general public, I have to bury what would be an unfavorable interpretation,” Holtslag said. “How do I do that? The same way I taught my dog to be quiet. I give him a hot dog. As soon as he smells the hot dog, his attention is somewhere else.”

Dr. Stephanie Slocum-Schaffer, associate professor of political science at Shepherd University, said fact confusion in the news can sometimes be generated by a lack of understanding by journalists when using consumer poll statistics

“In general, my reading of what journalists present to us often shows a lack of understanding about (poll) sampling, and specifically about margin of error,” Schaffer said.

News confusion can also happen when reporters use technical terms tied to polling.

“If you assume that a respondent knows what you’re talking about, or if you use a technical term like ‘electoral college,'” Schaffer said. “People don’t want to say that they don’t know what that means, people don’t want to admit that they don’t know what these technical terms are, and so they will guess. The quality of information we gather then is not very good.”

Dr. James Lewin, professor of English at Shepherd University, said the national media has lost its most valuable asset.

“What we have, it seems to me, is basically a crisis of credibility in the media,” Lewin said. “When you’re a journalist, the only thing you really have is your credibility. If you lose your credibility, it’s not easy to get it back.”

According to Lewin, the New York Times lost its creditably when covering last year’s presidential election.

“They didn’t take the Republicans that seriously,” Lewin said. “They portrayed the election as being sort of a popularity contest – whose got the worst problems, whose got the most insidious stuff. That’s not necessarily what the voters were concerned about. The voters were looking at issues.”

Lewin said the New York Times also failed to take voters’ political pulse.

“You’re not getting out there and actually reporting and covering what’s of concern to the people,” Lewin said.

The responsibility of distinguishing real news from so called “fake news” ultimately falls on the American citizen, Lewin said.

“The responsibility is for us to separate the hype from reality,” Lewin said. “Try to see through the spin.”

During a brief question and answer period, an audience member asked the panel where citizens should now go to “find out reality.”

Holtslag said consumers already have the most reliable tool for deciphering the news.

“It’s almost impossible to follow the news,” Holtslag said. “Because there is now so much spin, so much weighing, so much deflection – it’s chaotic. The only way you can know what is real, is by being critical.”

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Staff writer Jim McConville can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 215, or Twitter@jmcconvilleJN.