The first step toward combating fake news is being a good consumer, Penn State advertising and public relations professor Denise Bortree said Tuesday night.
Bortree, the university’s director of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Communications, spoke to about 100 students and faculty members in 121 Sparks about what fake news is and how journalists can ultimately minimize the amount of fake news in circulation.
“Personally, I think fake news is an oxymoron,” Bortree said. “If something is fake, it’s not news. But it’s the term we have now.”
Bortree first broke down “fake news” into four different categories: satire, such as the Onion and “The Daily Show”; hoaxes, such as rumors of celebrity deaths; misinformation, where an article only gives part of the story; and fabricated news, which is entirely false information.
Throughout the lecture, Bortree shared examples of headlines and asked the audience to determine whether it was real or fake news.
One of the headlines read, “Cheese really is crack. Study reveals cheese is as addictive as drugs.”
This was a real headline from the Los Angeles Times, but Bortree said she thinks the headline is “click-bait” because the article doesn’t contain enough research to support the headline.
“This is where it gets a little dangerous for journalists — this kind of headline starts to look a little bit like fake news,” Bortree said. “But, if you encounter something like this, you know what to do — read the story.”
Bortree said fake news is almost entirely driven by social media, referencing a Stanford study showing that more than 40 percent of fake news traffic is from social media shares, whereas traditional news sites only see 10 percent of their traffic coming in from social media shares.
“A lot of fake news stories engage us emotionally — they make us angry, they make us happy, they make us sad, they make us frustrated,” Bortree said. “And so, in that state, we’re less likely to step back, be objective, and make a good decision. People feel like it’s a service to share this because, ‘I’m so upset about it.’ ”
Around the time of the 2016 election, Facebook received a lot of criticism for not doing enough to suppress the spread of fake news, Bortree said.
Now, Bortree said Facebook has third-party fact-checkers such as Snopes.com flagging fakes news articles. Facebook then sends users notifications when they are about to share a flagged article.
“It’s important just to be more aware of things on your Facebook feed, things we see on Twitter,” sophomore journalism major and lecture attendee Katie O’Reilley said. “Everyone is looking out for fake news, so, hoping to become a journalist, I have to be true to my work and be a little more aware of what I’m doing.”
Bortree said communication students should continue the conversation about fake news by taking an ethics course or attending other ethics lectures.
“Your career, your reputation, starts now,” Bortree said. “You’re starting to communicate now, so make good choices now. Take that extra step to make sure what you’re saying is true.”
Katie DeFiore is a Penn State journalism student.