Fake news is not new. It’s been around as long as “news” has been around. If there is a problem with fake news, it may be the quantity of fake news we are currently exposed to. The more we see it, the more we tend to believe it.
The winter term at the university I work at began on Nov. 27, and I’m teaching two sections of Freshmen Studies II, a course that focuses on technical communication. It may be the most important class that I teach, because it teaches college students, in their first year of study, how to read. And by “reading,” I mean raising their literacy skills to new plateaus by helping them understand what “truth” is.
A Google search brings up the following definition for “news”: newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events. It’s an interesting definition, because it places emphasis on the newness of the information, and whether or not it is “noteworthy.” It does not emphasize whether or not the news is accurate, or “true.” So, maybe we don’t need to call “news” fake or true, since news, by definition, is about being new and noteworthy.
The larger question I ask my first-year students is: What is true? It’s a huge philosophical question, one that takes depth of thought to get one’s head wrapped around. It requires the student to consider the source of the information he or she comes into contact with, as well as the vehicle by which the information is received. Here’s the course description for Freshmen Studies II:
This course introduces students to the principles of report structure and professional documentation. College-level research strategies are introduced, with emphasis on locating appropriate sources, evaluating sources in terms of quality and bias, and citing and documenting sources correctly. Data analysis and techniques for visual representation of data to communicate meaning effectively will also be emphasized.
I will teach college-level research strategies, how to locate appropriate sources, how to evaluate sources—how to engage in data analysis. I want my students to get what they are paying for in their university education, and a big part of that is to learn how to be a self-educated person, to know how to learn without someone like me, a professor, teaching them how to learn. The most important step in that process is to learn how to evaluate sources in terms of quality and bias: if you know how to do that—if you can differentiate truth from falsehood—then you can discern what is fake from what is real.
Is the problem fake news? I don’t think so. The real problem is the inability to differentiate fake news from real news, or at least to understand the relationship between the two.
David Howell is the author of The Descent into Happiness: A Bicycling Journey over the Cascades and Rockies and across the Great Plains (Blue Ear Books, 2016). His new book The July Rides will be published in 2018.