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Lively conversations over a virtual cuppa

How do we get the facts?

An illustration of Jody K. Biehl and Michael Stefanone in coffee cups

Michael Stefanone (left) and Jody K. Biehl. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81

Many questions have been raised in recent months regarding the veracity of online information sources. “Fake news” sites are said to have taken hold of social media, spreading politically motivated messages. We asked Jody K. Biehl, director of UB’s Journalism Certificate Program, and Michael Stefanone (BA ’99), associate professor of communication, how users and media organizations should respond to the new ways digital media is interacting with information.

Jody K. Biehl: I’ve rewritten my curriculum to include topics about how students can recognize fake news. That was a huge change, going from talking about journalism ethics to a much more fundamental question of what is real and what is not. I now feel it’s my job to help students navigate this Wild West of the internet. Many of them get their news from Facebook, so we spend time talking about what it means to live in the information bubble that they do, and whether that’s really the one that they want to be in. 

Michael Stefanone: Traditional journalism is just about dead. We have more options for information than we’ve ever had before, and the majority of those options lack any type of editorial quality-control mechanism. People are actively trying to package information in ways that encourage a specific understanding. Meanwhile, we all seek out information that confirms our existing views. The consequence of this is increased polarization. So what is actually in the world, and how can you determine that? I think the best approach is to consume information from as many sources as possible so that you can triangulate the reality, if you will. 

JKB: I’m quite an optimist. So much talk is about “journalism is dead,” “we’re in a truthless age now,” and I think it’s just a new age. We have to teach our students how to differentiate, how to move through this new muck, these new places where news is delivered, often unintentionally. Mark Zuckerberg has said he never intended Facebook to be a news platform; he has no editorial humans on board. Facebook is considering shifting that now, but that’s not really its primary interest. Making students aware of that is crucial to me. I want students to question where they get their news and learn how to find quality reporting and information. We talk a lot about the bad news and the fake news, but there are still organizations doing tremendous reporting and producing excellent journalism. 

MS: I think that history is bound to repeat itself, and there’s a constant ebb and flow in terms of the quality of information that we have access to—the ecosystem, if you will. So I’m also an optimist. I think things will change for the better. There are going to be changes in the way these organizations use algorithms and institute some sort of editorial control, and users—you know, us—are adapting and becoming more skillful as well. 

JKB: I am hesitant to say the internet needs to be censored or that we need to get rid of specific websites. Instead, I think we need to arm our readers with information so they don’t click indiscriminately. It’s a question of habit. My son, who is 14, will be much more internet-savvy than even my students who are 20. It’s a different generation who has grown up with it, and starting to recognize, “Oh, that’s clickbait.” As they grow, we’re going to become, as a nation, savvier about what not to read. So I’d be worried about attempts to clamp down, to censor, to stop news. I’d prefer a mechanism by which we educate people about what news is not news, what the difference is. 

MS: That’s a great point. The tendency is for people to sign on to the easiest potential solution to a problem. There have long been companies like Net Nanny, whose products limit your children’s access to the internet. It strikes me as the same issue. As a parent, do you want to make your kids aware of what’s out there in the world, or do you want to rely on a technological solution to try to protect them, which seems kind of shortsighted. 

JKB: Right. And any kind of censorship, anywhere we’ve seen it, with repressive governments, with parents trying to protect their kids, oftentimes it backfires. Oftentimes when you tell somebody not to look at something, that’s the one thing they want to look at. And in terms of repressive regimes, it leaves that decision-making in the hands of people who may not have the best interests of the populace at heart. So I would prefer that we educate. I think there are things the general public can do when they look at a website. Does this look like a real website? Look at the domain name. Who’s creating it? When you click on the bios of the writers, do they seem real? Do they have information about how you can contact them? Read the whole article. Often, the further you read, the less plausible it sounds. If you’re a savvy consumer, you can start to decode many of these fake news sites.

MS: Not to mention more legitimate news sources. The example I give my students is The New York Times versus The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times will say, “The rights for labor in China are increasing,” and The Wall Street Journal will say, “The market’s unsettled now because of labor disputes in China.”

JKB: Right, right, perfect.

MS: It’s blatant, right? It’s everywhere, and it’s not new. One of the challenges that I have is, I asked my students how many of them voted, and I’d say about 6 percent.

JKB: Six percent had voted? Wow.

MS: Yeah, there’s still rampant apathy. They’re not interested. They’re completely disconnected from the political process. They don’t, on their own, seek out information about public affairs, social issues, economic issues, and that’s been the trend since the ’60s—increasingly negative participation over time, especially with 18- to 25-year-olds. So that’s a more systemic societal problem that nobody has an answer to right now.

JKB: Although, again, half the campus was galvanized by Bernie Sanders. That was a unique political moment. I was at the rally at UB, and the energy was electric. This little old guy comes out, and the crowd is screaming like he’s some rock star. That was an amazing moment for me. His strong social stances rocked something in them, got them excited. So there is something there, but it’s untapped yet.

How do you take your coffee?

Jody K. Biehl and Michael Stefanone

Michael: I take mine black. No frills. 

Jody: Dark roast with a splash of milk.