Keeping it real

Journalism professor John Kennedy wrestles ‘Fake News.’

Journalism professor John Kennedy talks about 'Fake News' at the West Tisbury library on Saturday. —Emily Kennedy

“Fake news” is credited in recent years as a major accelerant to the fiery and divisive state of our national discourse. The creation and dissemination of false content is now seen as a largely Internet-based weapon used to divide citizens, impact national elections, and threaten the framework of republics.

Longtime journalist and current college journalism lecturer John H. Kennedy has studied the phenomenon, and he’s got some ideas to help us to determine what’s fake and what’s real in electronic and print media offerings.

Mr. Kennedy will parse the fake news problem and offer real-world solutions at a presentation called “The Real News About Fake News: Taking Responsibility for Media Illiteracy” on Saturday, April 15, from 3 to 4:30 pm at the West Tisbury library. Mr. Kennedy, an Island resident, has 40 years of journalistic experience, and lectures at several colleges, including Boston University.

“(Fake news) has societal impact that is worrisome for sure, related to a variety of factors. We live in a media ecosphere; all you need is a laptop to create content. The content travels the world in seconds, and is rapidly rebroadcast. That phenomenon gives us pause on how we handle and verify information,” Mr. Kennedy said in a phone interview with The Times last week.

Defining fake news took on a new dimension during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when candidate Donald Trump decried traditional news outlets as fake news purveyors, instead preferring the often-iffy offerings on alt-right news websites. Island author and journalist Richard North Patterson experienced that war on news during the 2016 campaign. He has written a book, “Fever Swamp” (The Times, March 22), that includes detail on several candidates who struggled with truth-telling.

Mr. Patterson thinks fake news is pretty scary. He told The Times last week that “fake news” is more insidious than any act of terrorism: “Americans are unified in deploring violent extremism. But fake news exacerbates the social and political divisions in which political opposites increasingly live in separate realities rooted in facts [that] are often false, rejecting any search for objective truth.

“If we are arguing about what the facts suggest our national course should be, that’s one thing; if we can agree on what is factual, that is another. This threatens to destroy our political and social fabric,” Mr. Patterson said.

That’s where Mr. Kennedy comes in. He believes we have a responsibility to identify the truth of the information we consume. Mr. Kennedy will discuss media literacy, the origins of fake news, how its true meaning has been distorted, and what’s to be done about it. His presentation includes slides and short videos that describe the history of fake news and its impact, with opportunity for discussion and Q and A.

Mr. Kennedy’s media literacy mission is clear: “To understand what we are doing and to understand we have a responsibility to know what we are doing. We are aware of the streams of information, but we don’t have sufficient knowledge about them, and Americans have greater or lesser knowledge of that responsibility. In some ways we have responsibility to kids to educate them, to help develop their critical thinking skills, to be able to judge information on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Education at the elementary school level, in high school, and in college is not doing the job we need to do,” he said.

But Mr. Kennedy pointed to several media literacy programs in place that are catching on, including one launched 10 years ago by Stony Brook University on Long Island for all incoming freshmen. Stony Brook has shared that curriculum with a growing number of middle and high schools on Long Island that have incorporated media literacy into their curriculums, he noted.

“Young people use social media as their primary information sources, statistics show. Media literacy education allows students to look at the news ‘neighborhoods’ in which they live and how to vet the accuracy of those sources,” Mr. Kennedy said. “There has always been propaganda, but the fact is that in the digital world, some foreign ministries have departments of fake news, not for their internal audience, but directed at external audiences.

“I often think of a quote from U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: ‘We all are entitled to have our own opinions but we are not entitled to have our own set of facts.’”