Fake News Roundtable: Featuring Approaches to Academic Research

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On March 3, the Quello Center co-hosted a roundtable on Fake News with the Department of Media and Information and the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. Talks by Winson Peng, Esther Thorson, David Ewolsen, Keith Hampton, and Rachel Mourao kicked off a wide-ranging discussion. Each colleague seemed to approach the topic from their theoretical or methodological home, whether data science, journalism, social psychology or Internet studies, so I was left hoping for this discussion to help foster more inter-disciplinary collaboration. That said, the unique perspective of each academic was stimulating.

From a Quello Center perspective, I asked how we can reframe this discussion and their various research topics in ways that will have a longer shelf-life and impact on policy and practice. When fake news fades as a hot button issue, how will their research continue to be viewed as relevant. My own sense is that the real issue is the more enduring one of quality news, and how to define it, produce it, and support its consumption.

We hope to have more roundtables like this one, which drew colleagues from across the College. Many thanks to Dean Prabu David, Department Chair Johannes Bauer, and other heads for supporting this, and for the many doctoral students who attended. Our Assistant Director, Dr Bibi Reisdorf, expertly moderated the discussion and summarized key points. Thanks to all.

Bill Dutton

Fake News: A Roundtable Discussion from Quello Center on Vimeo.

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Avshalom Ginosar and the Quello Center

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With August coming to a close, Avshalom Ginosar has completed his year as a Visiting Fellow at the Quello Center, and has returned to Israel. He left the James and Mary Quello Center with a beautiful photograph of Haifa from Mt Carmel, but also left us with much appreciation for his collaboration over the past year. Among his many contributions to the research environment of the Center, Avsha applied his journalism background to writing some engaging blogs about selected Quello Center events. Most importantly, his curiosity, experience and willingness to engage in all of our activities and discussions made him a valued member of our academic community.

Avsha Ginosar

Avsha Ginosar

Avsha completed work on a number of publications while at the center, and became a valuable member of our academic community. His work focused on privacy issues online and also study of what he has called patriotic journalism in the online and offline world.

In Israel, Avsha returns to his position as a Senior Lecturer at The Academic College of Yezreel Valley, focusing his research on media governance, policy and regulation, all topics aligned well with the Quello Center. He will be missed at the Quello Center, but we hope to develop comparative and international projects with Avsha in due course.

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NYT Buries Lead, Muddies Water on EMF Health Issue

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As I explained in an earlier blog post, I believe potential risks associated with our ever-more-intensive use of wireless devices, and the expanding body of research suggesting such risks do exist, are being unwisely ignored in our rush to enjoy the benefits of these technologies.

As that earlier post suggested, I see a need for:

1) A much-expanded program of research focused on understanding and mitigating EMF-related health risks, especially for vulnerable populations;

2) A fact-based and respectful discussion of research and public policy issues related to such risks.

Given my interest in this subject, I thought I might learn something useful from a recent NYT article by Carol Pogash entitled Cellphone Ordinance Puts Berkeley at Forefront of Radiation Debate. But, as I read the piece, I discovered that it used a mix of questionable journalistic practices to convey a different and dismayingly biased message, one worthy of a headline more like “Crazy Berkeley Radicals Once Again Deny Science by Legislating Onerous Anti-Business Regulations Based on Unfounded Sky-Is-Falling Cancer Claims.”

The first set of warning lights flashed when I read Pogash’s lead paragraph:

Leave it to Berkeley: This city, which has led the nation in passing all manner of laws favored by the left, has done it again. This time, the city passed a measure — not actually backed by science — requiring cellphone stores to warn customers that the products could be hazardous to their health, presumably by emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.

While the first sentence may be true (I can’t tell without some independent research, since Pogash doesn’t cite any other “left-favored” laws passed by the city), it’s worth noting because it sets an effective perceptual frame for communicating the “Crazy Fact-Denying Berkeley Radicals Are At It Again” message. And it is especially potent in that regard when followed by two much more egregious statements in that paragraph. These claim that the Berkeley ordinance:

• is “not actually backed by science” and;

• warns customers that cellphones “could be hazardous to their health, presumably by emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.”

It seems to me that, after reading the first paragraph,  uninformed readers might reasonably assume that the ordinance’s disclosure requirement made unsubstantiated claims that cellphone use will expose users to “dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.”

While launching a piece on the Berkeley ordinance this way may have been fun to write (it is, after all, entertainingly written), I was surprised and disappointed to see that it survived the Times’ editorial process. I found the “presumably” phrase particularly egregious in that regard, since Pogash’s “presumption” had no relation to the actual content of the ordinance, though many readers would not have known it when they read the lead paragraph (or possibly even after reading the whole article).

In her second paragraph, Pogash retains her dismissive tone by referring to the new Berkeley law as the “so-called” Right to Know ordinance, whose provisions she cites partially and in pieces, rather than in whole.

After reading these first two paragraphs, it seems reasonable to me that uninformed readers would assume that the ordinance and its requirements made some extreme statements about health risks, including some direct reference to increased cancer risk. All the more so after Pogash begins her third paragraph by focusing readers’ attention back to her preferred angle on the story, the “there’s no definitive proof of cancer risk” straw man.

Even supporters of the ordinance acknowledge that there is no definitive scientific link between cellphones and cancer, although they argue that it may take years for cancers to develop. The American Cancer Society says that cases of people developing cancer after carrying cellphones may be coincidental or anecdotal.

In the second part of that paragraph Pogash somewhat grudgingly acknowledges the actual content and purpose of the ordinance by adding that:

But some supporters are undeterred, noting that there are similar warnings in the fine print of cellphone manuals, and that the Berkeley warning is carefully written to reflect that language, albeit with additional cautionary words.

But right after doing that she jumps back to a poorly documented and superficial “debunking” of claims regarding potential links between cellphone use and cancer, which takes up the bulk of the remaining column inches devoted to the piece.

What she does not make clear is what Larry Lessig, who supported the Berkeley city council with pro bono legal services, explained in a blog post published shortly after the ordinance was passed:

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Defining and Measuring the Quality of Journalism

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The implications of the digital age for the quality of information generally, and journalism in particular, has been a major issue for the study of communication technology, policy and regulation. The Quello Center has been interested in this issue, and one of its Associate Directors, Professor Steve Lacy, has co-authored a paper with Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute, entitled ‘Defining and Measuring Quality Journalism‘. If you are looking for appropriate metrics for capturing the quality of journalism, such as measures of diversity, depth, richness, length, and more, this is a must read – if not the place to start.

Steve Lacy at Quello Center

Steve Lacy at Quello Center

We encourage you to read this paper and email us or comment here on any aspect of this review of an incredibly important topic. The research was supported by the Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

The paper is available online at: http://mpii.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/50/2015/04/Defining-and-Measuring-Quality-Journalism.pdf

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Wonder What Greece’s Finance Minister is Thinking? Read His Blog.

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As someone who believes the Euro, as structured and managed today, is a deeply flawed system that has pushed Greece (and other nations) into a deep and prolonged depression, I was excited about Syriza’s recent victory and hopeful that the new Greek government could negotiate a deal with other Euro members to ease the pain of its citizens, and begin transitioning the Euro toward a fuller and healthier economic integration among its member states.

But, according to this post on the Naked Capitalism blog, the latest signs are not good for this kind of positive outcome. Though I’m tempted to discuss the economic and political substance of the post, I’ll resist that temptation (though I’d recommend the post to anyone interested in this important development in the global economy). Instead, what I want to focus on here is what I believe is a first in communication history (please correct me if I’m wrong): the fact that Greece’s new Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, in addition to being a respected economist (as one might expect for this kind of post), is also a longtime and prolific blogger. And, even after taking on his ministerial role in the midst of a national (and arguably European and even global) crisis, he has not given up his blogging practice.

As Varoufakis said on his blog shortly after his party’s electoral victory:

The time to put up or shut up has, I have been told, arrived. My plan is to defy such advice. To continue blogging here even though it is normally considered irresponsible for a Finance Minister to indulge in such crass forms of communication. Naturally, my blog posts will become more infrequent and shorter. But I do hope they compensate with juicier views, comments and insights.

For hope to be revived we must all strive to change the ways of a dismal past. Maintaining an open line with the outside world may be a small step in that direction.

So, keep watching this space!

As the Naked Capitalism post notes (with extended excerpts), Varoufakis, in a May 2012 post on his blog, explained with frankness and some detail the terrible consequences of a Greek exit from the Euro (a.k.a., Grexit).

Unfortunately, we may be on the brink of such an event. And, unlike earlier eras, when citizens had limited and indirect access to information and perspective about important matters of state, today we can read the blogged commentary (both past and present) of a nation’s Finance Minister, as he and his colleagues confront daily decisions of global import. And, in addition, we get to read a range of online commentaries (such as the recent Euro-focused posts on Naked Capitalism and many other blogs) that synthesize reporting and opinions from a range of sources (including expert and non-expert commenters from Greece and other affected nations and institutions)—much of it “footnoted” via hyperlinks to those sources.

As this is being written, Varoufakis’ most recent blog post highlights what many (including myself) see as a chronic and serious shortcoming of television coverage of complex, delicate and important developments. Commenting on a BBC video segment featuring an interview with him, Varoufakis had this to say:

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Re-inventing Journalism: A Report on a Conference in Switzerland

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Re-inventing Journalism
by Avshalom Ginosar

“Re-inventing Journalism” – this was the title of an international academic conference that took place in Winterthur, Switzerland (15 minutes from Zurich by train), on February 5th-6th. More than an hundred scholars, most of them from Europe, attended the conference.

Most of the 23 different workshops and presentations addressed, in one way or another, the transition of journalism onto the online world. It seems that this issue occupies not only the industry of news which keeps looking for the successful new business model, but it is an issue of great confusion and concern for the academic community as well. Scholars from different countries and different academic institutions are looking not only for new definitions of journalism and journalists; rather, they question the traditional theories of journalism and look for new theoretical directions, more suitable to the digital era of journalism. In fact, in all the sessions I attended, I heard more questions than answers.

The highlights of the conference were two keynote talks by Prof. Jane Singer of the City University in London, and of Wolfgang Blau, who is ‎now the Director of Digital Strategy at the British Guardian, and previously was the editor of the online version of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. These two figures knew about digital journalism than most of us attending, and both raised questions about its future. However, both of them certainly did not bury journalism as an occupation or as a social activity. On the contrary, both are very optimistic regarding the future of journalism in the digital and mobile world although as a journalism that will be quite different from the journalism to which we have grown accustomed for decades.

I would have welcomed more clarity on visions of that future, by these experts, but of course, they were journalists, not futurists. Perhaps readers might be able to suggest future directions or steer us to insightful work in this area?

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Journalism, Freedom of Speech, and Hypocrisy by Avshalom Ginosar

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There are moments in which the “world” stands together; I mean the democratic-liberal world and all those in other parts of the globe who wish to join the democratic-liberal part. The three terrorist attacks in Paris were one of these moments. It is understandable that everyone felt sympathy for the victims and their families. However, the terrorists in Paris did not murder only innocent people; they severely injured two of the fundamental values of the democratic-liberal world as well: freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Therefore, it is obvious that millions demonstrated not only to express their grief and anger, but to support the preservation of these two values.

One way to express this support was the publishing news of the first front page of Charlie Hebdo, following the massacre in its office. Every novice journalist and even every freshman in journalism studies understands that the publishing of this story and the new cartoon of Mohamad by Charlie Hebdo was a news-event that professionally was worthy to be published. Furthermore, the publishing of this story was the ultimate way to demonstrate that the terrorists did not succeed in murdering the democratic value of freedom of speech. And indeed, many newspapers, TV channels, and news sites all over the democratic world and beyond published the first page with the new cartoon.

However, it was not the case in the UK; most of the British media decided that the new cartoon is not publishable.* Why? The editor of The Independent admitted that he simply was afraid. Sky News cut a live interview in mid-course, simply because the French journalist being interviewed raised up the front page of the Charlie Hebdo with the cartoon for the camera, The news anchor explained that they acted in this way in order not to offend their audience. I cannot find other terms to describe these two decisions in the British media, other than to note the hypocrisy on the one hand and a retreat from a core journalistic code that is central to the role of a journalist on the other. The worst thing is that such behavior encourages the extremists and sends the message that terror is rewarding.

Here is the link to the interview stopped on Sky News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VN3LCy2yoBg

And here is the link to the interview with the editor of The Independenthttp://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jan/08/charlie-hebdo-muhammad-cartoons-independent-amol-rajan

*Articles about the coverage by British media and their justifications can be found at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jan/11/charlie-hebdo-cartoons-uk-press-publish and http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jan/13/charlie-hebdo-cover-magazine-prophet-muhammad

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Avshalom Ginosar, Visiting Fellow at the Quello Center

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Avshalom Ginosar, a Senior Lecturer in Israel, is visiting MSU’s Department of Media and Information this year, focusing his research on media governance, policy and regulation, all topics aligned well with the Quello Center, where Avshalom will be based.

Avshalom most recently developed a framework for classifying and analyzing media systems based on the concept of governance as conceived in public policy theory. He is studying the positions and perceptions of media regulators with respect to the public interest(s) they should preserve and promote. This has been an enduring issue for US regulation, and therefore promises to be of interest to faculty and students of regulation in the US. His past research focused more on the regulation of advertising, with his PhD dissertation focused on product placement in regulatory policies of the EU, Canada and Israel.

He is also interested in the Internet, and its regulation. One research project on this issue focused on the different positions of surfers’ versus industry representatives on the preferred mode and content of online advertising regulation. His current research (in collaboration with Dr. Yaron Ariel) on Internet regulation deals with privacy on the Internet, investigating the relationships between knowledge-understanding-and perceptions regarding privacy with reference to different types of Internet sites (such as governmental, commercial, and institutional). They are collecting data from the general public as well as sites managers, policy makers and regulators.

Another field of interest for Avsha is journalism, particularly around the concept of ‘patriotic journalism’. He is currently writing a paper that addresses patriotic journalism not only in the context of wars or during other national crises, where most of the research on this topic is centered, but also in more typical or normal contexts.

Avshalom Ginosar, Visiting Fellow at the Quello Center

Avshalom Ginosar, Visiting Fellow at the Quello Center

Avsha Ginosar received his Ph.D. in 2011 in Public Policy from the University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel, after a career in journalism, having completed his B.A. in International Relations in 1982 from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently as Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication of The Academic College of Yezreel Valley, Israel.

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