Hunter Library on the front lines of fighting ‘fake news’

A common term heard lately is “fake news,” a phrase used to describe those fabricated sources purporting to be an actual news outlet ― or a term sometimes bantered about to cast doubt on legitimate news sources.

Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library has created four webpages to help inform and educate anyone wanting to discern facts and legitimate news sources. One is a “fake news” guide to assist in choosing between real versus fake news headlines; the second is fun, regularly updated series of tasks to help people escape their news “bubbles” and explore news venues; the third is a vetted credible news listing; and the fourth is an international media listing, with citation of sources that are government or state-controlled. All may be accessed at http://researchguides.wcu.edu/NewsChallenge.

WCU librarians say their goal is to help individuals become more news-savvy, recognize credible journalism and become more discerning with any information source. “Fake news is not a new concept,” said Heidi Buchanan, reference librarian and coordinator of information literacy, who is leading the effort. “Mark Twain wrote a hoax article for a newspaper in 1862. But, because of today’s digital media, social media and the saturation of the 24/7 news cycle, there is a more rapid spread of messages, and a fake news report can quickly become a trending topic, viewed by thousands or even millions. People need tools to know what’s fake versus what’s real.”

A recent example of a fake news story leading to real consequence concerns a North Carolina man who pleaded guilty on March 24 to a shooting inside a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. The incident took place in December 2016 after the restaurant had been mentioned in fake news postings as the center of an alleged child sex ring operated by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief. The man said he was self-investigating “the reports” and went there to take action.

Heidi Buchanan, standing, is Hunter Library’s coordinator of information literacy and an organizer behind webpages to help people discern between legitimate news and “fake news.”

Fact-checking organizations such as WCU’s library are vital for a number of reasons, said Jim Buchanan, a WCU alumnus and veteran journalist from Western North Carolina with more than 30 years’ experience, and no relation to Heidi Buchanan. “One, there have always been a number of people out there who, just as an example, might claim leprechauns exist. Now, throwing such a claim at a reporter essentially puts the onus on him or her to prove they don’t. Proving the nonexistence of something, be it leprechauns or Barack Obama’s birth in Kenya, is a time-consuming chore. Clearinghouses for facts are essential in cutting through the chaff of such claims.

“Secondly, there is an increasingly finite number of reporters out there and an increasingly large amount of issues to cover. Having them chase unicorns doesn’t benefit anyone, and credible fact-checking organizations certainly cuts down on that chase time,” he said. “Third, a relatively new phenomenon is the rise of alternative-fact advocacy groups, well-heeled organizations dedicated to debunking or clouding widely accepted science such as climate change or the benefit of vaccines. In many cases, these debunking groups are funded by groups with a financial stake in having science debunked. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it’.”

Librarians stress the importance of treating research as a learned life skill, part of rational decision making that reaches far beyond civic duty and filtering through election year campaigning. Critical analysis is a skill that can be applied throughout a lifetime, they said.

Some WCU faculty are incorporating use of the webpages into their classes, Heidi Buchanan said. “You have to be an informed consumer of news and current events,” she said. “That’s what libraries have been teaching forever. One of our first steps (in the webpages project) was to research biases. You see an article, what are other news sources saying about it? What are the differing perspectives on the same event?”

Biases and partisanship aside, messages that are bogus, fictitious, misleading or otherwise deceptive can impede future determinations and decisions by citizens, she said.

“I am so happy to see our library faculty taking a lead role in this initiative. Information literacy is the key challenge of democracy in the 21st century,” said Chris Cooper, professor and head of the WCU Department of Political Science and Public Affairs. “We can only find policy solutions to our most pressing problems if we can agree on the facts.”

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in December 2016 found that 64 percent of Americans believe that fake news causes confusion about current events, and at least 23 percent acknowledged sharing a fake news story, either knowingly or not.

For more information, contact Heidi Buchanan at 828-227-3408 or hbuchanan@wcu.edu.