Journalism in the Era of Disinformation Inaugural Fellowship Experience

“Two-thirds of Americans think fake news causes confusion. The other one-third said, ‘Why are we talking about this when we’re being invaded by killer dolphins?’”

-Conan O’Brien, 2016

When you hear fake news what do you think about? Is it lies in the media? Is it the confusion of random information being thrown around the internet? What about the ever so obvious, Trump and his constant attack on media organizations for distributing alternative facts?

As an aspiring multimedia journalist, I was given the opportunity to be a part of the weeklong fellowship called “Journalism in the Era of Disinformation” constructed by Cultural Vistas which is a “nonprofit organization that facilitates internships and professional exchange programs and services for visitors coming to the U.S., and American students and professionals seeking experiential learning opportunities abroad.” We traveled to Washington, D.C.; Charlosttesville, VA; and New York, NY to hear from veteran reporters and news experts,.

For this particular project, 8 American students, including myself, and 8 German students came together to solve one of the media’s most crippling issues today: Fake News! Or as we like to call it “Disinformation.” I say crippling because it’s hard for some outlets to bounce back from the distribution of disinformation.

To kick off the program, we all met in Washington, D.C. and being that I lived in Northeast D.C., it was nothing for me to get a Lyft right around the corner to the Residence Inn Hotel. After a deep conversation over dinner at the Thaitantic restaurant, we came to the realization that we didn’t know nearly as much about fake news as we thought we did.

Luckily the next day, we were given a history lesson by Historian, Author, and Media Professional Dr. Cindy Gueli. Did you know that this is not the first time a generation has gone through a phase of disinformation? *mind blown* Instead, fake news started hundreds of years ago and has come in waves ever since. Every new era has a wave of fake news being distributed by different people and different kinds of media outlets. Fake news was political but also very petty. Political parties would spread fake information about their opponents in order to discredit them and wipe out their likability…It was TMZ if TMZ wore steel hoops and pantaloons.

One of the most controversial incidents of our time was the Unite the Right rally. I remember it so vividly. I was working as intern for USA Today’s Editorial Page when one of my fellow interns, Caleb Ecarma, was telling me that he wasn’t going to be at work the following day because he was going to attend the rally. Of course, I did my research and I was pretty shocked that he would be attending something like that. What sparked from this event was a bunch of disinformation and not just from National news orgs but their local papers as well. We spoke to with C-Ville Weekly, The Daily Progress, and CBS19 about how they had reported the day and the result of their reporting. We came to the conclusion that a major part of the spread of disinformation was the lack of attention on local news. Local news is what shapes the community and instead we look to national news to report to us what’s going on. They usually get it wrong.

In order for us to understand distribution of fake news, we must also look at the technological side. So our next stop was the Center for International Policy -Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative where we spoke to the Director and Founder, Dr. Ben Freeman. He showed us high-tech software that included ways of finding facts and information down to the “T”. We also visited the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab. They work to “operationalize the study of disinformation by using open source, social media, and digital forensic research to expose falsehoods and fake news, document human rights abuse, and build digital resilience worldwide.” A wordy way to say they combat fake news in the digital media realm.

We couldn’t leave out one of the most well-known projects used in the media: PolitiFact, a journalist’ hub for political fact-checking. I used some of their tips when I was working on an joint- investigative reporting project between Morgan State University and West Virginia University.

Onto New York. Not long after we checked into our hotel we took a trip over to The New York Times, the Associated Press, and heard from Handallsblatt via Cultural Vistas NY office. We gained so much information on how they avoid being a part of the wave of disinformation and what steps they take when fact-checking and releasing news to the public. I think one of the most important parts of this research was their openness to our questions. If they didn’t know, they let us know that they didn’t know, instead of walking around the truth which is a way disinformation is created.

After hearing from Handallsblatt, I wanted to really hear from my fellow German students on their view of the U.S. and our trouble with disinformation in the media. From the outside looking in, they see the trouble we go through with politics and how it affects us socially. Whereas in Germany, their media issues are minuscule. They did give us insight on their history. I’m still confused as to why their biggest news distributor started off as a fake news site but has grown into such a well-respected and well-rounded news organization today.

With all of these sources for dismantling the rise of disinformation, it’s a wonder why we still deal with it today. Why is that we have to keep going through eras of disinformation?

To wrap up our research we spent some time at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism to go over all of the information we had gathered via these news and information organizations. We presented all of the reasons why there is fake news and contributed ideas on how we could get rid of it. I’m excited to say that these reasons and solutions will be included in our White Paper. Coming soon 2018.



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