Fake News and How to Combat It

We may think fake news is something new, but it’s not.

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Tom Mullen, director of public affairs journalism at the University of Richmond and a former newspaper reporter, discusses fake news. (Photo by Cynthia Price)

“Fake news has existed as long as journalism has been around,” said Tom Mullen, director of public affairs journalism at the University of Richmond and a former newspaper reporter.

He cited an 1835 article in the New York Sun that said there is life on the moon. He pointed out that Joseph Pulitzer said, “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.”

Speaking to Virginia Professional Communicators, Mullen noted that presidents and military leaders use the fake news term to push back against bad news. “When leaders use propaganda, it means they can’t persuade you with the truth,” he said. “That is detrimental to democracy.”

He challenged the notion of alternative facts. “A fact is a fact,” he said. However, while news is verifiable, people can have interpretations, he noted.

Unfortunately, social media is becoming the primary source of news, and that is not news, Mullen said. Stories on social media are easy to manipulate and to spread without verification. Stories that are shocking, surprising or play on emotions are the most easily spread.

“Journalism gives oxygen to democracy,”

Tom Mullen

To determine if a story is fake or real, Mullen said to consider the following:

  • What is the source?
  • How credible is the source?
  • What are other sources saying about the information?
  • When was the Twitter account launched?
  • How is the grammar?

“Grammar matters,” Mullen said. “You should thank your English teacher. Bots are always a little off.”

He also recommended holding politicians accountable. “Criticizing the press is part of a robust discussion, demonizing journalism and journalists is not.”

Individuals should not post, Tweet or spread anything that they are not certain is true, he added.

Another way to combat fake news is to support good local journalism.

“Journalism gives oxygen to democracy,” Mullen said.

He stressed that good journalism –

  • Gives people the information they need to make decisions about their lives
  • Provides an essential civic service
  • Is a tool of social justice by helping to give readers and viewers the information they need to correct injustices

Ultimately, we are each and all responsible for not spreading fake news.

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