Reading between the lines

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Reference Librarian Celita Avila gives a lecture on fake news to Honors Academy students Feb. 23 in Chance. She discussed how to battle fake news by identifying which headlines in the mainstream media are fake and how to deal with others sharing fake news. This was Avila’s first time speaking about fake news, and she has been studying fake headlines since the presidential election. Photo by Deandra Gonzalez

Students learn to identify fake news.

By Austin P. Taylor

To avoid being bamboozled by fake news, students need to read past headlines, keep personal biases in check and find sources that corroborate the story, a librarian told students Feb. 23 in a workshop at this college.

A group of 16 students discussed the rising prevalence of fake news stories with Dehlia Wallis, coordinator for the Honors Academy, and Celita Avila, a reference librarian, in the Honors Academy of Chance Academic Center. 

“Fake news used to be trapped in the tabloids, but that changed when the internet came around,” Avila said during her presentation, “Battling the Scourge of Fake News.”

Avila proposed three key questions to the students.

“How do you keep up with current events? What does a reliable source look like? Can you define the word truth?” she asked.

For three minutes the students discussed these questions among themselves. 

A majority of the students cited social media as their main source for news. Others cited their phone’s newsfeed.

For a reliable news source, the students began listing basic principles and concepts such as “citation of sources” and a “fair and balanced report.”

No one seemed to agree on the definition of “truth.”

Some simply said truth is the facts, while others tried to ground the concept of truth by looking at what that word means in the context of the news.

Avila discussed President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, specifically this tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

“While this is troubling, it’s nothing new,” Avila said.

“The media’s relationship with power has always been rocky at best.”

She moved on to a graph produced by Buzzfeed, showing how engagements with sources of fake news surpassed engagements with credible sources during the 2016 presidential election.

The headlines for the fake stories tended to be juicer than their mainstream counterparts, such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.” That article from the website Ending the Fed had 960,000 engagements, based on the Buzzfeed data.

The mainstream story that had the most engagements was from the Washington Post: “Trump’s History of Corruption is Mind-Boggling. So Why is Clinton Supposedly the Corrupt One?” However, the piece only had 849,000 engagements in the months leading up to the election.

Avila showed the transcript from a National Public Radio interview with George Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley, linguist.

In the interview, Lakoff shared his theory on why Trump labels CNN, The New York Times and other media outlets as fake news.

“When Trump calls news fake, then, that word implies that the news isn’t serving its basic purposes,” he said. “It means that the story is intended to serve something other than the public good, and that the author intended to falsify the story.”

After Avila had highlighted the meaning behind the president’s use of the phrase “fake news,” she initiated a group exercise. She displayed three stories and had five groups sniff out the false story.

The first story described Inishturk, an island in Ireland that is committed to accepting American immigrants. The second was a conspiracy to give Ohio to Hillary Clinton during the voting process.

The third story was an alleged statement by Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

“I was so excited to see the president’s approval rating hit 40,” DeVos told reporters. “Just knowing that well more than half the country is with him gives us a great sense of confidence moving forward.”

After a few minutes of quiet debating, the assembly reconvened. Four of the groups said the second story was false; one group said that the third story was the culprit.

All three of the stories were false. The first story was written by a leftist website called Winning Democrats.

The Christian Times Newspaper, a conservative site that has since ceased publication, wrote the second story.

The final piece, DeVos’ quote, was written for the Borowitz Report, a satirical column for The New Yorker. The quote was fabricated for comedic purposes.

Avila introduced eight steps anyone could take to avoid letting fake news slip past them. Readers should:

• Consider their sources.

• Read beyond the headlines.

• Check the author.

• Make sure there are other sources that support the story.

• Check the publication date of the story to ensure the information is relevant.

• Make sure they know whether it’s a joke.

• Check their own biases.

• Consult an expert.

Avila asked students to keep an open mind about stories as well as people, that don’t conform to their political views.

“Don’t unfriend friends who’re on the opposite spectrum, but be aware of this trend,” Avila said.

She demonstrated the real damage fake news can do.

The Comet Ping Pong is a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.

The establishment was the subject of a fake news story that implicated Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in the trafficking of minors.

The story said his base of operations was The Comet Ping Pong.

After reading the story, Edgar Welch walked into the restaurant with an assault rifle and began firing. While no one was harmed, the incident caused panic throughout the area.

“If I’ve helped in some small way, I’ve done my part,” Avila said.

Avila’s entire presentation can be found at:


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