AHF grant sponsors BirminghamWatch Media Savvy forum

With fake news making real headlines and citizens torn about who to trust, the timing seemed perfect for two Media Savvy forums supported by an Alabama Humanities Foundation grant to an Alabama nonprofit dedicated to independent public service journalism.

Aimed at understanding today’s constantly changing click-driven media landscape and how to know if the news is real or fake, the media forums were held over the last month and featured veteran Alabama journalists talking about the evolution of the news business. The AHF grant to the nonprofit Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism and its online news presence, BirminghamWatch.org brought together citizens and media experts for discussions Sept. 28 and Oct. 5 in Birmingham.

“There’s never been a better time to talk about being media savvy,” said Carol Nunnelley, veteran newspaper editor and executive director of the nonprofit Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism and its public service reporting arm, BirminghamWatch.org. “Ten years ago, and it seems almost quaint now, the focus was on accuracy. Today’s media have to fight for attention. It’s hard to tell who is telling us what and for what purpose.”

Media Savvy: Smart Choices in a Changing Information Age began and ended with “Real News or Fake News” games and featured discussion by audience members and presenters about how economics, technology and social media continue to change how Americans receive, understand, and trust or don’t trust, the news and the news media.

Leading the forum was Chris Roberts, Ph.D, associate professor of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama, with presenters Nunnelley and Virginia Martin, lead news editor of BirminghamWatch.

In a presentation that included graphs of national media outlets and where they land on the political and accuracy spectrum, Roberts detailed ways for citizens to separate fact from fiction. Roberts, who is working with a co-author on the second edition of a journalism textbook on media ethics, quoted Politifact.com, the fact-checking news website that was the first to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for online media, for filtering through news to find the real.

For instance, if a news post does not have attribution, a date on the story, a reporter who can be found, a photo credit on the picture and a website with an “about us” or contact information, it could be fake. Other signs that a news items is fake include poor writing, sensational or overwrought presentation and odd website names that resemble legitimate news sources.

Facebook, Twitter and e-mail sharing historically help the spread of “fake news,” Roberts said.

“Well, if it’s on Facebook and Twitter, it’s bound to be true,” joked audience member Todd Benson, who asked Roberts to define fake news.

The term “fake news” in its current use emerged during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Roberts said. Fake news is usually created online, sometimes with political or social agendas, and often to secure more online “clicks.” How often readers click on or share online content is the new media currency, Roberts noted, and can determine how some writers get paid or if they keep their jobs.

Economic realities also help drive changes in media. Economically, newspapers in the U.S. are earning 40 cents on a dollar trying to compete for advertising dollars, Roberts said. Meanwhile, Google makes more money in advertising sales than all the newspapers and magazines combined.

“We live in a world where everybody is shouting,” Roberts said. “It’s hard to know what is really important, when to turn it up to 11.”

Reading news from sources you know and trust – and being aware of click-driven online posts – are key for people who want to be informed, said Roberts. Even though recent surveys show slight increases in the public’s trust in media overall, the professor said that today, “People don’t trust the media. They trust ‘their’ media.”

The evolution of the news business – consolidation of media outlets, including newspapers and local television and radio stations, the explosion of social media and fewer daily newspapers who print daily – has created more media outlets with less real reporting.

Nationwide, he said, there are 15,250 radio stations, 1,300 daily newspapers, 9,000 local television stations and 500 million websites.

“We should revel in the freedom” of information, he said, but stay aware that the onus is on citizens who care about being informed.

It comes down to the reader being media savvy, said Martin, lead editor with BirminghamWatch, the nonprofit news site with a mission of public service, investigating and explanatory reporting that is fair and factual. “Learning the truth in this day and age takes a lot more work on our part.”