English Department hosts panel discussion on “fake news”

The question for the chosen lecturers was “How can and should we parse information in a post-truth era?” The program called Questions of Democracy was aimed to discuss “fake news”, the phenomenon that it has caused much debate lately, and what the Sonoma State community can do to recognize this controversy. English Professor Anthony Rizzuto was one of five speakers at the roundtable discussion hosted by the Sonoma State University English Department on Thursday.

“Fake news is not new; what is new is that facts are being presented in media now as less important than feelings, which has been part of the Trump strategy the whole time,” said Rizzuto. “For the first time ever, the government is calling attention to the way in which they lie.”

According to Rizzuto, we don’t live in a post-truth era since the public craves the truth. He also joked that the whirlwind of this campaign has caused his English students to readily talk about the media being biased and unfair.

The panel consisted of a range of representatives from across campus. Professors Ed Beebout and Elizabeth Burch from the Communications Department and Sheila Cunningham spoke on behalf of the library. Talayah Hudson was the only student on the panel, representing the Black Student Union.

“I want to say on behalf of black people, fake news isn’t new,” Hudson started with. “Fake news has always been a part of the perpetuation of stereotypes against black people which normalizes them and it has real consequences for them.”

Hudson contributed the media for historically being able to turn stories around against African-Americans. Additionally, Hudson praised Ferguson micro-bloggers and investigative reporters for getting real-time information out in the open; this allowed the public to see up close what was happening and urged them to stand up for those in Ferguson.

“Fake news is really sad and the fact that it’s able to get to so many is also very scary,” said Hudson, whose speech also covered the need to research articles before spreading them on social media. “We combat fake news with common sense. Usually if something sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Check our sources, authors and websites, even dates.” There are websites available to fact check news stories such as Snopes.com and FactCheck.org.

“I’ve always said the great thing about the internet is that anyone can go on and be a media publisher,” said Beebout. “The bad thing about it is that anyone can go on and be a media publisher. So it’s about how we use the internet and, yes, it can have the potential for great good.”

Beebout spent 25 years in the news media industry first-hand and was a trained journalist. He said he believes that although reporters may be educated to be truthful, the institutional problem with the media is that news teams like to swoop in during large events rather than small, every-day matters. Beebout strongly believes a free press is essential to our democracy.

Beebout said Trump’s rhetoric towards the media is probably the strongest a president has had yet, although presidents not favoring the media isn’t new; they want the best media coverage and media aims for the truth. 

Beebout insists confirmation bias causes the circulation of false news quoting the famous tweet in which Trump stated that if he ran for president, he would run as a Republican since they’re “the dumbest” group of voters in the country. Social media users have shared this all over the internet, but it’s a fake tweet.

“We should to be careful of any kind of news that we’re getting,” said Breanna Gaither, junior at Sonoma State who attended the discussion with classmates. “Any information we’re getting has a point. There’s some sort of agenda going on when someone says you need to be aware of something or even when they say we need to be ignoring something. We need to think about what we’re being told.”

Gaither mentioned the best thing to do was take things with a grain of sand; whether the news is real or fake, be aware of what point the news tries to make.