Fact or Fiction: Becoming News Literate

By: Alyssa Ruffolo

On Wednesday, April 5, Delval held a panel called Fact or Fiction: Responsible Journalism and Becoming News Literate. Featured speakers on the panel included Brian Stelter from CNN News and David Folkenflik of NPR radio. Some very interesting discussion was brought forth throughout the conversation, all centered around the question of how do news groups and programs improve their coverage and their credibility.; how does anyone know who to trust?

Among the topics discussed, this idea of trust was a main theme. The speakers talked about the importance of rebuilding trust within the community, starting with honesty and simply telling viewers, “hey, we don’t know what is going on right now but we are going to do our best to find out for you.” This was a point that Stelter brought up about old-fashioned news programs, where it was considered unprofessional to say such things, so misinformation was often an issue. News groups have learned to be honest with viewers in order to build back trust. Another point that was brought up was that it is important for news groups to build personal relationships with locals. Folkenflik also brought up some of the complications that go along with this, explaining that at times reporters might feel apprehensive and uncomfortable with going into the “red” areas of say, PA, because they do not want to come off as patronizing. Cultural differences between city news reporters and Central PA conservatives may serve as a barrier when trying to build geographically diverse relationships.

Along with the idea of trust, the professional journalists examined their own issues with trusting the people from whom they receive stories to report on. Stelter expressed his embarrassment about an incident which happened years ago when he interviewed a man, posted his story, and then received a phone call from the man’s wife explaining that he had PTSD and the story was untrue. Ultimately, this mistake fell back on Stelter, and he feared that he would lose his job because of the mistake. In hindsight, he explained that this was an essential learning experience that allowed him to learn about his own practices and use of discretion when reporting. A similar situation was mentioned about when Rolling Stone covered the University of Virginia rape allegations that ended up being false. In the end, the reporter for Rolling Stone was at fault and caused the company a great deal of skepticism from the public.  Mistakes like these can discredit the whole organization and end up in great loss. So, trust is a two-way street, with news programs needing to build the trust of the community, but also knowing who to trust with stories and reporting.

It was said that Donald Trump has played a big part in the new explosion/ public interest in safe sources and knowing who to trust. With his incessant promotion of various news sites and criticism of others, he has left the public wondering, who really is to trust?

Folkenflik also highlighted the importance of feedback from the public. He suggested that radio news stations like NPR are more intimate because they are more direct toward their viewers – people listen usually one on one, in the car, on the way to work, etc. He also expressed his belief that people are getting sick of news channels airing a panel of experts merely bantering and debating over random political topics. Folkenflik believes that the people want to hear more from other average people. He said that with so many competing news channels today, news groups have to earn their viewers/followers more than ever before, and this is a good thing. This competition brings positive changes to news programs in many ways.

Dr. McCall also brought up the complexities of presenting issues of sexism, such as the Bill O’Reilly scandal among many others. Folkenflik described his experience speaking with a woman (who currently works for Fox News) who was denied a promotion because she would not go on a date with the man in control of this decision. He and Stelter also discussed the difficulties with reporting on cases of rape and sexual discrimination, and emphasized the need for women reporters to cover these stories rather than the same male reporters over and over again.

A few other points worth mentioning include Stelter’s comment about the need for a CNN history channel. He says that because there is so much historical context needed for many of the stories they show, he wishes that CNN could develop a separate history channel just so that viewers could fully understand the back story before receiving information about what is happening. Also, I thought it was interesting that one of the panelists pointed out the influence of tech companies on the viewers understanding of current events. Sites such as Facebook control what pops up on your feed, and this can ultimately affect what news you receive, what articles/sources you are exposed to, and your understanding of current events based on these. Stelter also stressed the importance of word choice. Phrases such as “climate change” have developed such a stigma about them, that Stelter says using other words may allow the audience to give the source a chance rather than writing it off as left or right, etc. He also mentioned the importance of writing ideas down before presenting news, even if it is supposed to be on-the-spot, because this type of reporting can be extremely difficult. Planning ahead, even if the preparation is minimal, still helps present the story more accurately, precisely, and clearly.

The panel was very insightful and provided me with a better understanding of the difficulties and complications of journalism. This discussion also opened my mind up to the struggles of journalists and news programs in knowing what sources to trust themselves. Often viewers have this idea of news programs that they are all-knowing and have so many people working on these stories that they must always know what source are right and wrong. In reality, with the growth of technology they struggle just as much as we do with source credibility and trust, and so we all must work harder to make sure the news we are receiving is trustworthy.


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