Spring SAVY 2017, Day 5- Intro to Journalism
This week, SAVY journalists dug deeper into ethical issues by examining the consequences of ethical lapses and different forms of “fake” news. The term “fake news” has become a part of our national conversation lately, and has taken on different definitions depending on who uses it. For the purposes of our class, we used the term to mean any reporting that is inaccurate, misleading (whether intentional or not), or flat wrong. What causes journalists to report false information? What are the consequences for the journalist, the news organization, and the public? How should we respond to fake news, as journalists and as news consumers?
We opened by discussing the case of Mike Daisey, a writer and theater performer who travelled to China to research conditions in the factories that manufacture Apple products and wrote about his experiences there. His account was featured on This American Life, a public radio show known for long-form journalism. Daisey’s episode quickly became the most downloaded episode in the show’s history and prompted Apple to look into work conditions at the factory. Students read an excerpt from the radio program transcript, and noted how the stories Daisey told were very compelling – several students even felt called to contact Apple or somehow take action to help the workers. There was just one problem: the most compelling parts of Daisey’s piece, it turned out, were not true. As a result, This American Life retracted the entire story and devoted a full hour-long episode to discussing what went wrong in their fact-checking process and interviewing Mike Daisey about why he lied. (Daisey’s defense: that the work was really good, and he didn’t feel getting every fact right was as important as telling a good story). After they found out the stories they’d read were actually made up, the students said they felt betrayed, and that they couldn’t trust anything in Daisey’s story was true. They also said that if This American Life had not done such a good job of retracting the story, they might not trust the program again, either. This led to an excellent discussion about how changing even one small detail in a journalistic story can quickly undermine the entire piece, and damage the public trust.
Next, we looked at the tricky work of reporting on scientific and health studies, and the dangerous assumptions that many journalists make: assuming that correlation equals causation. To demonstrate this, students took a brief survey about their chocolate-eating habits: whether they ate chocolate, how often they ate chocolate, and what kind of chocolate they liked best. Then, they answered several other questions about how often they get the flu or the common cold, their favorite subjects in school, and whether they get anxious about public speaking. Then, students looked for correlations in their data. All three groups of students found that eating chocolate correlated to getting symptoms of the common cold. They saw how easy it would be for journalists to write an attention-grabbing headline: “Eating Chocolate Causes You To Get Sick!” But, students pointed out, this was not the case. They thought of many causes for their cold symptoms that were completely unrelated to chocolate. And, they reasoned, it was silly to make that assumption based on a sample size of only four to five people. These students quickly saw the flaws in our pseudo-scientific study, and discussed how journalists have to be careful about which studies they write about, and how they write about them. It would be terrible, students reasoned, if parents saw the headline “Chocolate Makes You Sick” and banned their kids from eating chocolate, all because of sloppy science and sloppy journalism.
Finally, students discussed the problem of “fake news” sites on the internet, some of which pretend to be reputable news sites but report skewed or entirely made-up information. It can be very hard for news consumers to sort what’s true from what’s not, especially when many of these articles are meant to evoke strong emotions in their readers. To help, students looked at several strategies for spotting and responding to “fake news” on the internet, including investigating the source, verifying facts with trusted news sources, and above all, not sharing suspicious content.
Next week, students will have the opportunity to meet Emily Siner, a radio journalist working in the Nashville community. We’ll listen to some of Ms. Siner’s stories and will ask her questions about her job covering Middle Tennessee.