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INTERVIEW: More News on Fake News

We are very honored to share this fascinating interview by Tessa Jolls of the Consortium for Media Literacy. She interviews Jason Ohler, Professor emeritus of educational technology and virtual learning, as well as a distinguished President's Professor, University of Alaska and Professor in Fielding Graduate University's Media Psychology PhD program.

Tessa Jolls (TJ) : Jason, in your essay you explained how we as humans are hardwired to believe fake news. There’s this notion of confirmation bias, but how do you see these ideas playing out in our work in media literacy?

Jason Ohler (JO) : It’s probably more accurate to say we ’re wired to believe ideas that we already subscribe to, whether they’re fake or not. That is, if we hear some news that supports our worldview then we don’t stop to question whether it’s real or fake – we just accept it as true. The way we come at media is we tend to look for those information sources that already support our biases. It doesn’t make any difference what side of the aisle you’re on; this is part of the human condition. It’s a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, which is just a fancy way of saying that we see what we want to see. It happens mostly in two ways. First, we limit our input to those information sources that are supportive of ideas we already subscribe to. We can see this in the news sources we choose, the blogs we subscribe to, and so on. And second, when we hear something that doesn’t support our worldview, we tend automatically to spin it, deflect it or simply reject it out of hand without considering it. If we consider it at all it’s to look for what’s wrong with it. The goal is not to find the truth but rather to keep our worldview intact. Once our worldview crumbles, we have chaos and the mind will do anything to avoid chaos. It’s a rather amazing phenomenon that we engage in. It’s not as though we listen to information objectively, and then make a decision about it. We’ve already made our decision before we’ve heard the information. It’s just a matter of how we will massage what we hear to fit our previously - held beliefs. In that sense, we’re all somewhat like the Catholic Church in the time of Galileo.

"If we hear some news that supports our worldview then we don’t stop to question whether it’s real or fake – we just accept it as true."

To demonstrate this to my media psychology PhD students at Fielding Graduate University I have them make a list of their information inputs. Any Media. Radio. Podcasts. TV. Facebook. Even their friends. It doesn’t matter – whatever information sources they regularly use. They only need to spend a couple of days doing this. Then they use the objectivity of a social scientist to infer what their bias is towards the world as though they were observing someone else. Many are shocked. I mean, they’re all very smart, aware people and they can’t believe they’re as biased as they are. Almost none of them take the approach of listening to Liberal and Conservative sources in order to compare them. They find sources that support what th y already believe. It’s a big aha moment for my very smart PhD students.

TJ: I can imagine. That’s a really wonderful kind of exercise to go through for all of us.

JO: Yes.

TJ: Where do you help them go from there? Once they have that aha moment? What can we do to address our bias? We all share that inclination to believe what we want to believe and to hear what we want to hear. Where do we go with that?

JO: That is the $64,000-question, isn’t it? Once you know how guided you are by your biases, most of which are invisible to you—how do you respond? I hope what students do is find other media sources to bounce their ideas off of. A great resource for doing this is something like Google news, because it usually will provide four or five different sources for the same story. (See the graphic

(Blue Feed/Red Feed from the Wall Street Journal).

On a good day, the stories don’t just come from US news sources but also from India, Canada, the UK, and so on. It’s always fascinating to me to see how people not invested in the immediate news culture in the United States respond to a news story about the United States. We know very well that an important aspect of media literacy is being able to read between the lines to try to detect what writers and editors haven’t reported in a news story. I’m not saying these are bad people. But they have only so many column inches, so to speak. When they report about an important issue or incident they have to squeeze their story into a rather short space. In the process, what they choose to eliminate or include exposes their bias. Sometimes you can read about a story from three or four sources, and you’d swear you were reading about a different event. If the story is at all controversial, it takes at least three or four sources to knit together what might be a fairly good representation of what actually did happen and why we should care about it. So, I hope my students do that and I would encourage everyone to do th at.

"... an important aspect of media literacy is being able to read between the lines to try to detect what writers and editors haven’t reported in a news story."

TJ: Yes, that’s a great media literacy practice because it does give us a fuller picture of the whole mosaic of reporting that covers a particular event. Yet at the same time, in regards to that mosaic, it does take time and effort to put those piece s together. We also come against the very human limitation of how much time do we have, how important is the issue to us in terms of going after that mosaic and where will it possibly lead us.

JO: Well, it all begins with a desire to know what the truth is. I’m afraid there are fewer and fewer people who put truth-seeking at the top of their to-do list. There’s much more a sense of subscribing to a particular “team” viewpoint. If you’re a fan of a particular sports team, and there is a close call in a game, you root for your team regardless of the truth. That’s fine! Doesn’t hurt anyone. But when we’re talking about political events and important decisions that truly affect people and their lives in important ways then rooting for your team regardless of the facts does become important. Everyone does it—Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal, or whatever, it really doesn’t matter. There is so much information coming at us and the world is so confusing and overwhelming at this point, the fallback position for most people is, “Well, what’s my team thinking?” If you’re a Republican or a Democrat and the team is thinking a particular w