Introducing a new course for a critical moment in media literacy

Today we debut an exciting new course at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. It’s called “Fact or Fiction?” and it comes at an appropriate moment for many ongoing conversations about media and information literacy in a so-called post-truth era. Threats from mis/disinformation, fake news, and propaganda are problems not only of supply but also of demand—we need to better understand social and psychological forces that contribute to the take-up of such material, in addition to the economics of clicks and currency of likes that drives much of this information profusion and media confusion. This is class is about all that and more, including a dive into data literacy and numeracy for journalists and strategic communicators.

The Fact of Fiction course description and learning outcomes are below, and the syllabus is available via Google Drive and as a PDF.

Course Description

Fact or Fiction is a course about making sense of information in the digital age. In a supposedly “post-truth” moment, how can media creators and consumers alike evaluate information to determine what’s credible? More broadly, what are the forces and factors that shape how we come to understand what’s “fake” and what’s “factual” in an increasingly complex media environment? Now more than ever, amid declining trust in professions and institutions, it matters to understand dynamics of trust, verification, misinformation, propaganda, and the social spread of information. This course will focus on two key areas: (1) an explanation of key cases and controversies—from fake news to the complicated role of Facebook and other platforms—that shape how people perceive matters of fact, and which are relevant for journalism, public relations, advertising, and other media domains; and (2) an introduction to data literacy and numeracy, or the ability to apply basic numerical and statistical concepts. These two broad areas will be applied in evaluating how media workers, such as journalists and strategic communicators, develop notions of truth, ethics, and transparency, among other things. In all, our goal is to equip you with a foundation in media literacy and statistical literacy such that you can avoid being duped and help others to do the same.

Course Learning Outcomes

This course is designed to help students achieve certain learning outcomes and competencies. At the conclusion of the term, you should be able to:

  • Describe and explain key concepts, cases, and controversies related to the creation, circulation, and consumption of news (fake and otherwise), both historically and contemporaneously.
  • Identify and interpret key debates regarding objectivity, propaganda, mis/disinformation, news literacy, verification, trust and accountability, and other concerns relevant to media work and media life.
  • Articulate and evaluate similarities and differences in approaches to truth among media occupations (e.g., journalism, PR, advertising) and media practices (e.g., documentary filmmaking, photography, data visualization).
  • Evaluate the relative benefits and drawbacks of digital media technologies—algorithms, platforms, social media, etc.—for the spread of facts and fakes.
  • Define and discuss notions of numeracy, statistical literacy, logical reasoning, and scientific methods.
  • Apply class concepts in conducting original research (a digital ethnography) to assess the techniques that media actors use to portray reality.
  • Interpret findings from research, apply them to cases that interest you personally and/or professionally, and report and present on these to your colleagues.

CfP: Special issue of New Media & Society — “Truth, facts, and fake: The shifting epistemologies of news in a digital age”

I’m excited to announce the following call for papers for a special issue of New Media & Society: “Truth, facts, and fake: The shifting epistemologies of news in a digital age.” I will be co-editing the special issue with two terrific partners, Mats Ekström and Oscar Westlund of the University of Gothenburg (the three of us are working on a recently funded grant to study the epistemologies of digital news production). Note that, in addition to the special issue, shortlisted authors will be invited to participate in an online workshop in early 2018 that will allow for feedback on each other’s work as well as a chance to experiment with a virtual meeting format.

Thank you for sharing this CfP far and wide!

CALL FOR PAPERS: Special issue of New Media & Society and related online workshop

Truth, facts, and fake: The shifting epistemologies of news in a digital age

Mats Ekström, University of Gothenburg
Seth C. Lewis, University of Oregon
Oscar Westlund, University of Gothenburg

Tentative timeline:

  • Abstract submission deadline: Monday, October 2, 2017
  • Notification on submitted abstracts: Friday, October 20, 2017
  • Online workshop focusing on the special issue theme: in early February 2018
  • Article submission deadline: Thursday, March 1, 2018

Verified, fact-based information is presumed to be an important feature in society, for citizens individually and for democratic governance as a whole. During much the 20th century, legacy news media enjoyed a prominent position in attempting to fulfill that role, reporting on happenings near and far. Journalists professionalized over time, developing standards, norms, methods, and networks of sources that enabled them to make knowledge claims. Such epistemological practices—presumed to provide factual and reliable public information—have made journalism one of the most influential knowledge-producing institutions in society.

However, both slow and sudden changes are challenging the role of journalism in society. There is an ongoing but gradual shift from legacy media to digital media. On the one hand, this shift has opened new pathways for news access and distribution across an array of platforms—social, mobile, apps, and the like. On the other hand, this shift has generally undercut the business models of legacy news media organizations, resulting in the weakening and downsizing of newsrooms and the fragmenting of collective audiences for news—altogether raising questions about the continued viability of journalism to produce reliable information. Meanwhile, the more sudden change in the information landscape is the rapid expansion of actors that, in some cases, are intent on providing “alternative facts” or otherwise questioning the accounts of news media. This comes at a moment when many people, particularly in developed countries, appear to have little confidence in the press. While some of these sources seek to verify facts in a journalistic fashion, others pursue a deliberate strategy of disinformation for political or financial purposes. The success of such “fake news” has led to widespread debate about what some are calling a “post-truth” era.

Altogether, these developments point to many opportunities for research and theory. A general question concerns how the epistemologies of journalism—knowledge claims, norms, and practices—are shaped by the changes and challenges in digital news production. How do journalists know what they know, and how are their knowledge claims articulated and justified? To understand the destabilization of the epistemic status of journalism articulated in current debates, what is needed are empirical studies, historical explanations, and theoretical developments. Moreover, it is essential to better understand how news consumers perceive news, “fake” or otherwise; e.g., how do they evaluate and act upon such claims? Citizens also need media literacy skills to assess the quality of information; what constitutes such literacy, and how does it respond to the knowledge conditions of the contemporary digital environment? As a response to the rise of fake news, several groups have mobilized to investigate information. The functioning and implications of such mobilizations (such as fact-checking movements), as well as digital media tools that aid citizens and professionals in verifying information, are important to analyze to develop our understanding of the production and consumption of more or less verified and non-verified information in a changing news media landscape.

For this special issue, the guest editors welcome two kinds of article submissions: theoretically informed and empirically rigorous articles (using quantitative, qualitative, computational, and/or mixed methods), as well as conceptualizations involving systematic and relevant literature reviews. Contributors may address issues including, but not limited to, the following:

* The epistemology of different forms of journalism—such as data journalism, which conveys news through the analysis and visualization of numerical data, and participatory journalism, which involves audiences and communities in news construction;

* Knowledge-oriented norms, values, and practices applied when publishing and distributing news, accordingly to varying socio-cultural, political, organizational, and technological contexts;

* The shifting networks of sources on which journalists and other information professionals rely;

* The discursive construction of “truth” and “facts” in the context of news production, distribution, and consumption;

* Notions of “fake news,” “post-truth,” and related controversies brought to light by the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and which are applicable also in many other countries and contexts;

* The knowledge-oriented practices of news consumers as they encounter purportedly “fake news” and propaganda online (and, by extension, questions of and conceptualizations for media literacy);

* Verification on/for social media as well as related forms of technologically driven means of information assessment;

* Perceptions and practices of professional footage vis-à-vis amateur footage, including issues of authenticity and authority;

* The formation, vision, and practices of initiatives, groups or organizations working toward identifying “fake news,” on behalf of professionals, the public or both;

* Comparative perspectives on news consumers and their relative trust in different forms of media processes and products;

* The development, appropriation, and use of technological systems and tools for verification.

Information about submission:

Proposals should include the following: an abstract of 500-750 words (not including references) as well as background information on the author(s), including an abbreviated bio that describes previous and current research that relates to the special issue theme. Please submit your proposal as a PDF to the e-mail address no later than Monday, October 2, 2017. Later that month, by October 20, authors will be notified whether their abstract has been selected, and consequently if they will be encouraged to develop and submit an article for peer review.

Please note: Authors whose abstracts are shortlisted for full-paper submission to the special issue also will be committing to take part in an online workshop, hosted by the University of Gothenburg, to be held in early February 2018. This experimental approach will allow for the sharing and commenting on drafts as well as the discussion of more general theoretical issues, future research opportunities, and networking among scholars. Live sessions will be held for portions of two days, in addition to a week period for open commenting and discussion. Further details will be conveyed to shortlisted authors.

Finally, full articles will be due Thursday, March 1, 2018, for full blind review, in accordance with the journal’s peer-review procedure.