What is “News Literacy” in This Age of “Fake News”? - Copper State of Mind: public relations, media, and marketing in Arizona

Episode 9

Published on:

6th Jul 2021

What is “News Literacy” in This Age of “Fake News”?

It's more important than ever to become "news literate" and to develop the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate the sources of our information.

In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk about news literacy, "fake news," and the responsibility we all have to be smart, active consumers of news and information.

Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Why it is Important to be News Literate"

If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”

Additional Resources

Need to hire a PR firm?

We demystify the process and give you some helpful advice in Episode 19: "How to Hire a Public Relations Agency in Arizona: Insider Tips for Executives and Marketing Directors"

Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.  

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.

Adrian McIntyre:

We know that no news is good news, but sometimes real news is fake news, and now we've all got the news literacy blues. That's our poem to start the show today. We're talking about news literacy, and how to navigate the landscape of different media outlets putting out different kinds of claims. It's gotten harder these days to tell what's real, what's fake, and where we all stand in that. Joining me to really dig into this topic is Abbie Fink, vice-president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, this is a really critical thing. What's on your mind?

Abbie Fink:

So you remember when you'd go... well, I would do as a kid, I'd go in the grocery store with my grandma, and she'd be picking up The National Enquirer and saying, "Oh Abbie, this woman gave birth to an elephant. Can you believe it?" And, "Grandma of course." And then I'd shake my head. I'm like, "No, of course I don't believe it." So we've had fake news forever and ever and ever, but the difference with the tabloids that we remember from being a kid was, you kind of knew it was fake. I mean, I don't think it's possible that a woman could give birth to an elephant. Today's fake news is really... looks and reads, and you listen to it, and there's a lot of opportunity for that to feel like it's real. And it becomes even more complicated as a consumer of news to be news literate, meaning understanding what truly is fake, and what is there to manipulate you, versus what is clear, objective information. And that's what we're going to talk a little bit about today.

Adrian McIntyre:

So I think there's at least two phenomena to tease apart here, and we may find as we get into this that there's more than two. So the first thing is, is that some news just ain't true. So there's that phenomenon. But then there's also the phenomenon of calling things fake news as an accusation, or a dismissive kind of... hurling that characterization at something in order to dismiss it. Those are not exactly the same thing. There is stuff that is media, but isn't factual. And then there's the epithet of fake news, which is oftentimes pointed at actual news. So how do we begin to navigate this minefield of perception, confusion, misinformation, manipulation, and so on?

Abbie Fink:

The idea of fake news in the most recent time frame has really been aimed at, "I don't like it, I don't agree with it, it must be fake." Which is not the same as untruthful, inaccurate reporting. And so I think where we have to, as a... again this is coming from the consumer perspective, when we are reading a news story, either online or in a... well primarily online, let's stick with that for the moment, is we have to understand where it's coming from. So if you see a story on CBS News on their website or on their app, and we know that CBS News is a credible news organization, and I'm not here to discuss whether you like the way they deliver the news or you think it has a right leaning or left leaning bent. But CBS News is a legitimate news outlet. CNN is a legitimate news outlet. Fox News is a legitimate news outlet, right? They are, whether you agree with the content that's on there or not. It is the other kinds of news outlets, and I say news in quotes, that appear to look like a legitimate news, but is not. And when you, if as a consumer, if you dive in a little bit into where it originated, who's writing these stories, where is the content coming from, you can often tell that much of it is manipulated in some fashion. May not be written by actual people, they could be written by an automated content producer. And so we really have to, as we're reading and listening to news, have to be smart about what we're doing and find multiple places for that information to come. And it isn't because their information is factually incorrect, but even legitimate news outlets need to be fact checked, right? If I read about something in a local newspaper, and it seems a little unbelievable, I'm going to go find out if anyone else is reporting about it, right? Can I see it in another media outlet? Is another media outlet in another market covering it? Is the sources that are being quoted also being quoted someplace else? That's on me as a consumer to make sure that I do everything I can when I read something or hear something that feels a little bit unbelievable to determine whether or not in fact it actually is something I can believe.

Adrian McIntyre:

When the Weather Channel tells me it's raining in my neighborhood. It's easy for me to walk out the front door and see if I get wet or not. That is a very simple and verifiable claim. It gets a little more complicated when it's not just the media outlets themselves that are "real news" or "fake news," but when there are different types of content on the same platform. So CNN has straight up news reporting, and they have opinion shows and commentary, and things that are not in fact journalistic in their adherence to certain code of ethics and objectivity and things of that nature. Fox is the same. And again with Fox and other networks, you also have the division between the national network shows, the syndicated shows, and then local reporters. So the Fox affiliate here in the Phoenix market may have a news gathering team that's doing straight up news, but then the very next hour could be a program running nationally that is entirely opinion and has no basis in reality sometimes. And that's by the way not just Fox. That could be any of them, I'm just using this as an example. So how do... it's not enough anymore to simply say, "This outlet is giving me the truth," because every one of them seems to have a blend of reportage and opinion and so on.

Abbie Fink:

And that's the important distinction to make there, is the difference between news coverage and opinion. So almost every daily newspaper in the market will have an opinion page, an editorial page in the paper, and it is clearly defined as such and it will have a header that says, "These opinions below are the opinions of our editorial team," or they're the opinions of the consumers, the letters to the editor and the opinion pieces. It is clearly defined as opinion. It is likely based in some news feature, right? There might be something happening at the legislature, and one of the opinion writers wants to comment on it, and his or her opinion is what we are reading. But it is that person's opinion, and it is clearly defined as such. What we're seeing now is more of the blending of editorial and opinion, where the consumer of that may not see the distinction. There may, as you're reading through the newspaper, you may not notice that that's happening, or if you're watching the local television, you may not see where the break between the news coverage and someone saying, "This is my opinion about this particular topic." And even those opinions is, in my view, not fake news. It's someone's opinion. The fake news element is when it is made to look real, that it is quoting sources that may or may not be legitimate sources, and it is delivered to you in a manner that makes you believe it is coming from a legitimate news source. Now, going in the way, way back machine we would call that propaganda, right? And when I was in journalism school, PT Barnum was brought up to be... "The greatest show," the circus was the greatest show, and he was the barker, and he yelled and he screamed and you believed him, but that was propaganda. The tabloids that we talked about, you can read those for entertainment. There was no nugget of news in those publications, and we understood that and we read them for that purpose. And some of the... Saturday Night Live's News Update, it's in a grain of truth, right? It's based on what's happening in the market, but it's their twist on it. It's their viewpoint of it. But it's clearly defined as such. This fake news, and fake news as in untruthful, unreliable, un-sourced, is really where the challenge comes in. And it has brought up a whole industry in fake news. This is a way of operating for a lot of organizations that are trying to push out an agenda, and doing it in a way that is meant to hide behind what they believe to be factual information. And one of the other things I want to make a distinction here is we, journalists have a code of ethics. And as such, they have guidelines by which they produce their content. Multiple sources, lots of fact checking, coming from different viewpoints to present as objectively as possible a story. But we're human, so mistakes do happen. A mistake in a story does not make it fake news, it makes it with a mistake. Legitimate publications own up to that mistake, as we talked about last week, about apologies, right? They apologize for making a mistake, they correct it, and they tell you how they corrected that. And new information will often come about as well. What we know today about a topic may not be what's available a week from now, and so the story changes. That doesn't make it fake, it makes it advanced. It moves it forward. It gives us additional information. And so news literacy is really, we're teaching it in schools. We're helping our kids understand what it means to read to a newspaper, and how to question the content and determine whether or not it's accurate and reliable. Certainly as those of us in the profession of developing news stories and providing news content for journalists to review, we are paying more attention to how we are putting that information out, how are we making sure that we're providing accurate, up to date, transparent, objective information so that journalists can take that and then do with it to put together the stories that they're doing. And then ultimately, as the consumer, question what you read. Question what you listen to. Find other places for your facts to be checked.

Adrian McIntyre:

I think it's important to understand that even the professional media workers, the ones most committed to the truth, to discovering facts, confirming those facts with multiple sources, and reporting those facts without spin, so whatever objectivity means, it's something like that. Finding the facts, confirming the facts, and reporting them in a way that's not skewing the facts in the way they're being reported. Professional journalists also struggle with some of these topics, but they do it in a professional way. So for example, there are important conversations happening now about newsroom bias, about the lack of representation in the decision making process of legitimate news organizations, of journalists of color, of native and indigenous folks, of other voices. And there's some very real dilemmas being worked out in a kind of messy way as it is, because humans trying to do their best but inside of systems that have been skewed in the favor of certain groups historically, so we're trying to work that out. And that's really important. So even the objective, professional news organizations have to also confront some of the inequities, inequalities, biases, and things of that nature. That has to happen. We have to distinguish that important evolution of the profession from the clear disinformation machine, or machines.

Abbie Fink:


Adrian McIntyre:

Some of which are based here in the United States, some of which are based abroad, because the internet has created a global communication environment of production and consumption. So we need to be able to talk about these things without them getting collapsed, because they are not the same thing. What's happening in a building in Saint Petersburg that's showing up in your Facebook News Feed because you've liked certain topics or groups, and you're now consuming completely manufactured news stories trying to influence your participation in your own democratic process, that's deeply problematic. It needs to be dealt with. That's probably a national security concern among other things, et cetera, et cetera. But the fake news name calling, right? "Oh, you're fake news, this is fake news, that's fake news." That actually really serves the people who are doing the disinformation stuff, because it sort of creates this smoke and clouds and confusion and chaos. Disinformation thrives in darkness and confusion and chaos. So how do we begin to separate out for ourselves and for the public the growing pains of a very well established profession? It's not like journalism's been around yesterday, but it's still got a lot to go. And even here in Arizona, stories out of our own newsrooms and some of the challenges they're facing with hiring and retaining diverse talent, that's important and we've got to do better. But we've also got to find our way through this other morass. How do we do that?

Abbie Fink:

Well, the media is referred to as the fourth estate. They are ones to do the checks and balances. And I think rightfully so, they've turned that check onto themselves, and they're looking at their own operation and their own business and saying, "Are we doing the best that we can? Are we representative of the community that we are operating in?" And that's why you're seeing some of these discussions rising to the top about an equal and diverse workplace, not unlike every other business that's been taking a look at that and really diving into it. So the fact that the journalism industry, the print and broadcast are taking a look at themselves and saying, "Are we doing a disservice to our community if we are not representative of our community?" And I don't think that conversation stops. That's going to be an ongoing and regular, and that's as much about, are we as an industry attractive to a diverse population? Are we educating students of color and different cultures to want to come into this business, and to do that. And that's a much larger discussion. The concept of mal-information, misinformation, disinformation again is... those are new words that we're using. I think it's new words to describe what might've been going on, and just maybe not recognizing it as such. What I had said earlier about the accusation of fake news was really aimed at, "I don't like what you said. It must be fake." And that's very different from it being wrong and intentionally wrong. I mean, I read a lot of things, and I don't like the story, but that doesn't mean it's factually incorrect. I just don't like it. And mal-information, misinformation, disinformation, is really that intentional effort to manipulate consumers around particular topics. And the industry, the communications industry is taking a hard look at our role and responsibility in that. There is resources that are out there for those of us that are on this side of the communications environment in terms of how we're creating content to be considered for news, and are we putting forth the right information. Journalists have their own checks and balances. Again, their code of ethics, what they need to do in order to effectively put out content in a objective, truthful way. And it's aligning with those ethics that guide journalists, that guide business practices, that guide all of our decision makings, and that will create the... or hopefully disengage that concept of misinformation. But I don't think it happens quickly. I think that we again, we have to go back to how are we educating ourselves about reading newspapers. Do you remember as a kid having... I was probably in a social studies class. We had to read the morning newspaper and bring an article to school to talk about current events, and it was as much about the event we were reading about, but how to read the newspaper. The front page was national news, and the second section was local news, and you had a sports page and a business... I mean, it taught us how to do that. But it was taught, letting the newspaper being an educational tool. We have to continue to do that. We have to teach kids how to consume news. We have to teach them to be questioning what they're seeing, so that as they grow and they continue to consume news, they question and they find other places for their information as adults that have been consumers of news for a long time. Question what you read, question what you're seeing. Demand that you see it in different places before you decide. And then, and we don't have time to get into it today so we might save it for another conversation, but we haven't even addressed what happens in that social media environment with what news looks like and how it's given to us. And as you said, you go online to search for something, and then you see it in your social media feeds, and it appears to look like a newspaper article or a video story. And all of which is to say we have to be smarter about it, because not everything is going to be wrong or fake, but we have to be intentional about how we're looking for that, and that we're paying attention to the way that information is coming to us, and watch for those kind of markers. We all know how to do it with our email now, right? We know when a spam email comes. We can tell by the way it's written, we can tell by the typos that are in it that it's probably not a legitimate email. We need to start thinking about our media consumption the same way, and look at it really intently to determine if we can trust that source, and if we can't that we find some information elsewhere to verify what we're learning about.

Adrian McIntyre:

I think we should revisit this, because there are a lot of really specific things that we could and should dig into just to gloss this very briefly, and we can return to it. It used to be that producing this kind of content was a barrier to entry, because the cost of printing, the cost of broadcasting, the cost of video production was very high. Certainly the distribution costs were equally high. Now where everybody has a high definition multimedia production facility in their phone, it's very easy to record a video, to slap something that looks like a chyron across the bottom. You can reproduce the look and feel of real news. And I think this is such an important point. You made this earlier, it went by kind of quickly. I think it's really, really fascinating to think about the fact that fake news works by pretending to be real news. In other words, it's going to adopt the same conventions, the same visual and verbal conventions as real news. So we can talk about how to pull those apart. But really, I think what we're left with here, and this is as you rightly point out a challenge for everyone who participates in a democracy, is we have to own for ourselves the responsibility of being good citizens, good consumers of information. This is Critical Thinking 101, but it's not convenient. It's much easier to simply be outraged or afraid by the things that others are making in order to produce those emotions in us, and then to click. And that click is registered in a tracking pixel that can increase ad rate, and the whole machinery. We have to understand how it works, and how it works is more complex. To be quite honest, I'm less worried about the youngest of the young people these days who are more digital natives. They are of course susceptible to manipulation, to influencers who are creating stuff, et cetera, et cetera. But honestly, I think without any disrespect, it's the 60 and up crowd I'm more worried about, because it's been harder to navigate that transition from traditional media to the contemporary media world, and I think it's just easier to be fooled, because things look like the way it was back in the day, and that seems like it makes it credible, and it just isn't anymore.

Abbie Fink:

And that's the way it was, was the way that Walter Cronkite would... I mean, the news media in its earlier stages, the print media and then eventually when we went into television news, they were respected and trustworthy, and that was... they put forth that image. That was all about how they marketed themselves as a trustworthy source. And they would come into your living room every evening at 6:00 PM, and they would tell you what happened in the world, and they did it in such a way that you trusted that what they were telling you was true. Now we could trust them, because if we know the back end, fact checkers and others are making sure that what's coming out onto the screen is actually based in fact. And the biggest challenge I think is really in that, what we keep talking about, is fake news that's meant to look like real news. An influencer who is using their social media following to advise me to purchase something or go to this movie or download this recipe or whatever it is, that's their job, and it is clear that that's what they are intended to do, right? To get me to do something. Is different than news, is different than that third party, objective view of something. And so you can take a story about, that it's raining outside, and that's a very clear... it's, there's water on the ground, I can look up, I can see that and report on it. Versus, where did the rain really come from? Is it really rain? Is there a big water balloon over my... I mean, that becomes the fake news part, when they're trying to tell us something different. And I don't disagree with you. I think the younger generation may be a little bit more skeptical. They don't know anything different, so they maybe already start to question some of those things. Those of us that grew up in a different environment with the news and how the news was delivered to us may be a little more, because we trust it, we might be a little more susceptible. But we need to be thinking about the difference between what were those grocery store tabloids, and Woman Gives Birth to Elephant, versus what we're hearing today, which is the elephants are going to take over the world, and they're causing the rain forest to... that's where the fake comes in. So as we think about fair and objective and accurate reporting, and versus what is there to manipulate and create an opinion, create discourse, is the distinction between what is legitimate news and what is fake or misinformation. And the concept of news literacy I think is here to stay, and it's going to be something that all of us certainly in the industry need to be paying attention to, and certainly as consumers of the news products, is how to be a smart consumer and add your objectivity and your gut instinct when you take a look at a news story these days.

If you enjoyed today’s show, please find and follow Copper State of Mind in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast app. You can also find the show online at HMAPR.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I’m Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Copper State of Mind.

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About the Podcast

Copper State of Mind: public relations, media, and marketing in Arizona
Public relations, media, and marketing strategies for communicating effectively in today’s business climate from Abbie Fink of HMA Public Relations, Arizona’s longest-tenured PR agency.
Copper State of Mind is a public relations podcast for Arizona executives, business owners, and directors of marketing and communications who want to increase the effectiveness of their PR, media, and marketing campaigns.

From messaging and media relations to content strategy and crisis management, the dollars your organization spends on integrated marketing communications are an investment that helps boost your brand, break through the noise, and drive business results.

Join Abbie Fink, Vice President/General Manager of HMA Public Relations, and Dr. Adrian McIntyre, cultural anthropologist and storytelling consultant, as they explore today’s communications challenges and share insights, stories, and strategies to help your message reach its target audience.

Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications agency in Phoenix and the oldest continuously operating PR firm in Arizona. With more than 40 years of experience helping clients tell their stories, HMA Public Relations is committed to your success. Learn more at https://hmapr.com

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Phoenix, AZ. Learn more at https://phx.fm

About your hosts

Abbie S. Fink

Profile picture for Abbie S. Fink
Abbie S. Fink is president of HMA Public Relations, the oldest continuously operating PR firm in Arizona. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations. Abbie is often invited to present to a wide variety of business and civic organizations on such topics as media relations, social media and digital communications strategies, crisis communications, and special events management.

Adrian McIntyre, PhD

Profile picture for Adrian McIntyre, PhD
Dr. Adrian McIntyre is a social scientist, storytelling strategist, and internationally recognized authority on effective communication. His on-air experience began in 1978 at the age of five as a co-host of "The Happy Day Express," the longest-running children's radio program in California history. Adrian earned his PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a Fulbright scholar and National Science Foundation research fellow. He spent nearly a decade in the Middle East and Africa as a researcher, journalist, and media spokesperson for two of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world. Today he advises and trains entrepreneurs, executives, and corporate teams on high-performance communication, the power of storytelling, and how to leverage digital media to build a personal leadership brand.