Fact or Fabrication?: Talks focus on media literacy in age of distortion

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NORTH ADAMS — If there's one thing journalist Dolores Barclay wants you to know about so-called fake news, it's this: "There's no such thing as fake news. There's truth and there are lies."

During a visit this past week to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, as the semester's Hardman Journalist-in-Residence, Barclay gave her address, "Truth on the Battlefield: The War against Fake News," one of several talks on the subject scheduled this spring.

The Williamstown and North Adams public libraries will so-sponsor a public forum titled " Fact or Fabrication in Today's News," at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Williamstown Youth Center.

On two Saturdays, April 8 and April 22, the Stockbridge Library, Museum & Archives will offer presentations under the heading: "Consider the Source: Truth and News in the Misinformation Age." Both programs will take place at 4 p.m. at the library.

The use of the term and distribution of fake news — non-satirical hoaxes, propaganda or other articles deliberately made to look or sound factual — is nothing new, but the term returned to vogue without question during the 2016 election season.

And it doesn't appear to be going anywhere fast, said Barclay, who began her reporting career with The Associated Press during the post-Watergate era. Why? Because it's an industry that's become prolific and profitable through monetizing mechanisms like Google AdSense, Chitika (a Massachusetts based search-targeted ad company), and tools available through Facebook and other social media sites.

Barclay now serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where this has also become a topic of study, analysis and debate.

"To me, the term 'fake news' is offensive," she said, "but there is such a thing as misinformation, disinformation, and misdirection."

In essence, it's bending our perception of truth by catering to peoples preferences, values and opinions. It also challenges the ethics and values of society at a time when people live and work in a 24/7 work and information cycle, and billions of bits of information can be accessed in the palm of our hands in milliseconds.

So what's a citizen to do?

"You just need to decide that facts matter," said Barclay. She also recommends taking a 5-second pause before posting or sharing an article, meme, or video clip to ponder the source of it and ask the question of whether the content is real, is outdated, or is just really wrong.

You have to be aware that fake news sites exist and become familiar with their names, and the context of their content. "The Onion," read by millions is a publisher of satire, as is Andy Borowitz's "The Borowitz Report" from "The New Yorker." "American News," also with a readership in the millions, has been known to publish hoaxes, while "WorldTruth TV" and "InfoWars," are often sources of propaganda and conspiracy theories.

Thanks to photo and image alteration software, almost anyone can alter a headline, image or story, and several social media sites also offer headline and breaking news generator software and tools.

This resurgence of fake news hysteria also means that credible news sources and journalists must work harder than ever to "be accurate, fair, and keep standards high" for readers, Barclay said.

Some of the upcoming discussions in the Berkshires will allow audiences to ask questions, vet the issues and meet with journalists and educators.

Monday's forum at the Williamstown Youth Center will include discussion on how schools and libraries can address the fake news challenge and how it affects the roles of and views of citizens and voters.

The first talk in the Stockbridge Library, Museum & Archives series will be "Facts or Fakes: Finding Reliable Information in the Digital Age," to help with tracking down objective and reliable information, followed by "Fake News, Real News: Why the Difference Matters to Our Democracy" which will focus on the state of news media.

MCLA student Jonathan Hoel, who is on the staff of the MCLA student newspaper The Beacon, said that if anything good can come out of exposure to the fake news cycle, he said that it's engaging people to think about it. "Now everyone cares a lot more about the real issues. People are starting to pay attention," he said.


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