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Today Larry talks to Peter Adams, Senior Vice President of Research and Design for the News Literacy Project. They discuss the upcoming election, mis- and disinformation, as well as some surprising information on how media literacy is taught in classrooms.

You can listen here or on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Listen to “Podcast: How to Detect Disinformation and Spin” on Spreaker.


Note: The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Larry: It’s my pleasure to speak with Peter Adams, the Senior Vice President of Research and Design at the News Literacy Project. Prior to taking on this job, he was the organization’s head of education, and he began his career as a classroom teacher in the New York City schools, which makes him particularly qualified to talk about news literacy.

So, let’s start with I guess I would say the elephant and the donkey in the room, so to speak, which is the upcoming election in the United States.

I’m very concerned, I’m sure many people are very concerned about misinformation, divisiveness and other issues. I want to get your take on that. How you’re preparing for it and what your concerns are.

Peter: Yeah. The current state of our information environment and the current state of our politics I think are deeply intertwined. I think the information environment and the dynamics there have largely driven the current state of polarization and the trend of polarization that so many public opinion researchers have tracked since the mid nineties even. So, we’re deeply concerned about the potential, obviously for mis and disinformation to circulate around the election, to misrepresent the security of our elections to misrepresent. What are our pressing problems and not pressing problems in our society? And the potential for this election to just further divide America into ideological camps and into partisan echo chambers online.

Larry: I’m trying to figure out how this period differs from previous periods. I grew up at a time when it was very common to have liberal newspapers and conservative newspapers. It might be a Democratic leaning paper in the afternoon and a Republican leaning paper in the morning or vice versa in many of our cities. So, how is it different today than it’s been historically?

Peter: I tend to kind of push back on this idea that every single news organization out there has some kind of systematic partisan orientation. I think there are lots of journalists at lots of news organizations, both print and broadcast and digital, trying their best to report the news as fairly and impartially as possible.

And so I think that’s my issue with some of these media bias charts and rating systems that pretend like, you know, you can quantify something like that with a small sample of coverage and, and I think it puts in people’s minds that everybody is somehow out to manipulate them, that every news source has some sort of slant or angle that’s systematic and not just incidental uh, that they’re not all trying to get it, get it right.

So I would say that we were in a time, I think, In the 80s and 90s, where journalism was quickly improving, we had some honest conversations in the early aughts about coverage. We’ve continued those conversations, obviously, into today and in summer of 2020 was sort of a reckoning point for a lot of news organizations and grappling with their history and representing and including communities of color across the country.

But those kinds of conversations are also happening as we’ve seen this decline, right and and the real struggle with the business model of news. So there are hopeful things and difficult things in the mix there.

Larry: Like NLP’s incoming vice chair, Walter Mossberg, I have been a technology journalist most of my career and was with the LA Times in the 80s and 90s, and New York Times part of the aughts, and I was an opinion columnist.

I mean, I told people what I thought and you know, you could agree with me, you could disagree with me, but even my opinion columns were fact based. In other words, I might tell you don’t buy this computer because it does X, Y, and Z, but I would have good evidence. Or I might say, I don’t like the color of it.

It’s my personal opinion. So how do we, our readers and our listeners, distinguish between people like me who are giving our opinion and reporters whose job it is to simply, you know, to give the facts or perhaps some perspective or analysis. And I think, frankly, of two extremes in a way, the Wall Street Journal, which has a very conservative editorial board, and the New York Times, which has a liberal editorial board.

But they both have highly reputable, trustworthy, honest, hardworking reporters working for them.

Peter: I think at reputable news organizations that have rigorous standards you know, you should see a clear distinction between opinion content and straight news and in those newsrooms you should also see a division between the editorial board and the way things are covered by straight news reporters.

So I think you should be able to tell very clearly with labels and obviously in the physical paper, it was easier. Things were in clear sections but that has become murkier in some digital environments and some other media outlets that are less committed to reporting straight news and more committed to getting clicks by sharing opinions.

People naturally gravitate toward opinion if they’re not careful. It’s nice to have our own biases and views and beliefs and values reflected back to us. Cable news figured that out early on. The number of opinion format, talk format shows on cable news dwarfed the time they committed to straight news for a reason. It drives revenue but it also can drive polarization and division if we’re not careful if our media diets get too lopsided in that direction. So I would say, you know, if it’s challenging for you to figure out if what you’re looking at is supposed to be an opinion piece or a straight news piece, maybe reflect on the source a little more because reputable sources should be very careful with that distinction and we should expect that as news consumers.

Larry: No, it’s interesting you say that because, I mean, I go back and forth between many news channels, but including Fox and MSNBC, which have very different editorial I don’t know, column biases, whatever you want, perspective slants and what I’m listening for or watching for is.

The facts versus the opinion. So if you tell me, I don’t know something about Joe Biden and tell me what’s wrong with that or something about Donald Trump and tell me what’s wrong with that or right with that, I as a voter, as a listener, want to be able to distinguish the facts from how you interpret it in your opinion. And often, that’s very difficult to do.

Peter: It can be, I mean, it’s difficult especially in broadcast for on air personalities to talk about the news in a way that is impartial and doesn’t stray from analysis into opinion. I think that’s a very fine line.

In that environment. It’s a bit easier to keep that line bright and shining in print. But there are still choices that folks have to make, right? Word choice is important and I think there are lots of instances of debatable perceptions of coverage where one person takes issue with the way a person is characterized or a word choice.

They see bias in it. Someone else thinks it’s spot on and accurate and honest. I think those debates are very important and when people are evaluating a news source, what they should be looking for are news organizations that have a concern for being fair and impartial. You may not always agree with how things are framed.

You may not always agree with their news judgment, what’s covered on a given day or what isn’t. You may not agree with every turn of phrase or word choice, you should see a concern for being fair and impartial. So if a news organization really does post a headline that is clearly biased or problematic to social media.

and then they later update that and they’re responsive, that’s a very positive signal, right? I think people have to pay attention to those signals. More than anything else,

Larry: I think it was Daniel Patrick Boynihan, who was credited with the statement, “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.”

And that’s the part that really, really bothers me today. The fact that somebody could say something that is blatantly untrue, even going so far as to claim they didn’t say anything, even though they were on tape, having said it or a news person. And I almost think about, you know, that I joke, somebody said, if the weather reporter tells you it’s going to rain tomorrow and they’re wrong, that might have been a mistake. If they told you it rained yesterday and they’re wrong, it’s probably a lie. And the idea that you could literally go on television or go on the internet and say things that’s demonstrably untrue, that could easily be disproven.

I don’t know, maybe I’m old fashioned and naive, but I would consider I’d be incredibly embarrassed if I got caught doing that. Yet it seems to be something that people can do with impunity today. How is that even possible that people yeah professional people with college degrees can go on television and say something that is demonstrably untrue?

Peter: Yeah, it is a concern. I think there’s a lot. I think there’s a lot there. We know that people often turn to social media and information flows looking for comprehension to understand complex realities and very simple terms to get a sense of belonging to find community with like minded folks to some level of control over their lives.

Sometimes that turns into just performative amplification of things that are false. Spinning things into misleading statements, saying things that maybe intuitively feel right to your community, but are as you mentioned, flat out false and it almost doesn’t matter in some environments and in some corners of the internet or on some social media platforms.

That a blatantly misleading, dishonest sort of characterization or an outright false statement gets a lot of likes and shares. A lot of people aren’t even looking to check the statement if it resonates with their biases and how they feel. And I think, people need to think about their information reputations, not just in what they post, but in what they in what they amplify, what they like and share. And we should all start caring about that a little more.

Larry: You know, in my career as a journalist, like most humans, I’ve made mistakes. But when that happens, two things occur: one is I’m horrified that I made a mistake that wound up in print or getting on the air, and second of all, I immediately call my editor and say, oh my God, I made this mistake. Can we please publish a correction? Can we please call back this feed?

I’ll give you a silly example. One time I accidentally referred to Macron, the president of France as prime minister. I was on my way to a Broadway play and I had realized that I had made this mistake and I went back to my hotel, made the correction, went and got late to the play, knowing that 99 percent of my audience wouldn’t have known the difference or noticed the difference, and even if they had, they would have forgiven me.

But just the idea that my voice would be associated with something even irrelevantly inaccurate was appalling to me. And of course, my editors at CBS News agreed that it had to be corrected.

Peter: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. That’s something we’ve believed from the beginning here at the News Literacy Project: that the standards and practices of quality journalism have a lot to teach people and to help them navigate today’s information environment.

And it’s also important for us to work to close the gaps between how quality journalism works and quality news organizations operate and people’s perceptions or mischaracterizations of that work. Which I think, is a pretty distinct gap. There’s been public opinion research that, suggests a pretty strong percentage of people think that reporters intentionally insert false information into their work and you know, if you talk to any journalist who takes their work seriously, any journalist at a standards based newsroom, they would be mortified at the idea of a correction on their work. They’re taken incredibly seriously.

Something I often suggest to folks is to go and read corrections. Read the corrections on today’s New York Times. Go read the corrections on your local paper and see how granular these corrections are, how small an error, small a mistake, they go back and fix because every single error of fact is taken seriously.

And again, that demonstrates a concern for accuracy, a very serious concern for accuracy, and I think that’s what people should be looking for in the news they trust.

Larry: So, as the News Literacy Project is mostly an educational project, and I assume that young people are a very important part of your audience, what can the village do, what can parents, what can communities, what can educators do to help young people understand it?

How to be good consumers of media without necessarily looking as if you’re putting your finger on the scale? In other words, I don’t want to go and lecture somebody about conservatism versus liberalism and you know, why I personally like this paper versus that paper. I want them to do the kinds of things you’re talking about.

I want them to understand the difference between editorial and reporting. And I also want them to be, what’s the term, skeptical, but not cynical. Curious, you know, but not immediately prone to assuming everything’s wrong. How do we, even go about getting that education?

Peter: It’s a lot. We do serve young people primarily, but we do it through educators. And we’re also working on bolstering the resources and support we provide to parents and other community stakeholders in young people’s lives. So this is a great question. One thing that I tend to underscore for all of those audiences is to help students and young people understand that no source of information is perfect. But they’re also not created equal, right? So just because, there’s no such thing as a perfect source of information doesn’t mean you should be equally skeptical of a random blog post or an anonymous person on Twitter as you are of a standards based news report.

That doesn’t mean you swallow whole and trust it, without critical consumption of the news you see, but just realize that there are different communities of practice, that those are very different information universes and our expectations should be different and approach that differently.

I also think it goes back to kind of where we started in our conversation that a lot of people teach young people that every source of information is somehow tactical; is out to persuade them of something is making secret choices about where to place articles or how a story is, headlined or the lead image for a story.

And a lot of times that even passes for media literacy in the classroom, unfortunately. And I think it does inspire in students a deep cynicism that every source of information is out to manipulate them or persuade them. I’ve heard students in classrooms say that the only thing they can trust is what they see with their own eyes because everybody’s out to somehow mislead them.

I think if you paint a picture like that of our information environment, it’s deeply disempowering to young people to convince them that there ultimately isn’t such a thing as credible information. Disturbing and just on an individual level, quite civically disempowering.

So we try to really push for skepticism, right? To help students understand, look, there are certain things you can and can’t take for granted depending on where you are in the information environment. If it’s someone on Twitter you don’t know, you can’t trust that they are who they say they are.

You can’t trust that a photo is what they say it is or is even now, an actual photo and not synthetic. But in a standards based news environment, if a photo is on the front page of your local paper it’s almost certainly what it says it is because they have standards and processes and a, and a real interest in getting that right.

It doesn’t mean it never happens. It’s just incredibly rare. So we can’t teach students to approach everything in the same way. We can’t really lead them down that trap of thinking that everything is somehow tactical or out to subtly manipulate them or has some kind of secret agenda behind it.

Some things are, but credible information still exists and we have to help them see that and then understand what that means, right, so that they can respond and help make that practice better.

Larry: We need to talk about seeing things with your own eyes. Even I, and I think I’m very media literate, can’t tell you with absolute certainty who won the election based on the federal election results, because I didn’t go back into the government agent, you know, in every county in America, and actually look at what the tally was.

But I believe, based on enormous amounts of inferential evidence, that Joe Biden won the election. That doesn’t necessarily mean he should have won. We can debate who the best candidate might have been, but I am extremely sure that he won the election, but I can’t convince many people of that.

You know, even when I talk about the 60 trials and this and that. Yeah. I mean, I don’t even know how to say it. There’s just this intransigence to accept credible information.

Peter: I think a lot. So look, I think a lot can go wrong when our evidentiary standards are too low, obviously, and we believe things we shouldn’t.

But I think equally true if our evidentiary standards are too high. That leads to rabbit holes, right? Can I prove with absolute certainty with my own eyes and firsthand experience that we landed on the moon or that the earth is round? No, and that’s how a lot of people wind up down these rabbit holes, right, where they believe these fringe beliefs or absurd beliefs, because they distrust all of the available evidence and construct, you know, this narrative about the possibility that all of these entities are somehow colluding and no one has broken that silence and in, you know, in the end, it leads them down really dangerous and harmful places or isolating places. I like to say, you know, that conspiratorial beliefs and thinking is almost like critical thinking gone haywire taken to a different level and a wrong place.

So I think there’s some of that here, right in, in your question that, when our evidentiary standards are so high that all we will believe is firsthand experience, it’s ultimately disempowering and dangerous. It can lead us to dangerous places for sure.

Larry: I’m glad we’re in this conversation because it’s something that I find just so difficult to navigate because you’re absolutely right.

I mean, there’s very little in life that I can really certify with my own eyes. And as you pointed out now, thanks to AI, even some of that, you know, we could question legitimately. So, I mean, we do need to be somewhat skeptical in an environment where you can manufacture things that appear to be very real.

And I’m sure that AI is preventing the news literacy project with yet an additional set of challenges. Maybe we should talk about that for a moment, about how you’re handling the whole AI issue.

Peter: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I think, generative AI has especially, image generators and now synthetic video generators, which are coming soon. I mean, they’re here, but not in wide use quite yet, but they’ll be here uh, have upended our standards for evidence and visual evidence. What counts as visual evidence online as these things have gotten more and more photo realistic, you know, in 2017 or 18, you could take a synthetic image of a person and pretty easily see if you looked at it for more than a few seconds that it wasn’t real.

They had, you know, errors and misshapen teeth and seven fingers and backgrounds that didn’t make sense or a melted ear on one side. Now they’re incredibly realistic and so I think we just have to assume that the day is coming fast when we will have absolutely photorealistic synthetic images that can be ordered up with a plain language prompt is pretty much the case now.

And I think we have to assume that the same will be true of video and anticipate some of those challenges in a number of ways, right? We have to help people understand that that technology exists and what it can do. I think we have to press for some regulation of that industry, some inclusion of watermarking and really encourage the development of technologies built to detect those synthetic tools. And, of course people then have to trust those tools. I also worry about the possibility that people will dismiss authentic photos and videos and recordings.

As voice clones or synthetic images because they’re inconvenient, you know, cognitive dissonance doesn’t feel good. And it’s easy to just dismiss solid evidence and I think political candidates will do this, if a damning, you know, photo or old video surfaces. They’ll just say it’s synthetic.

And even if experts can prove it’s not, I think it won’t matter to some of their base and that will be a challenge that we’ll really have to grapple with.

Larry: I have a close relative who doesn’t watch the news, doesn’t read the news, because it just depresses her. Yeah and she would just rather not deal with it. I mean, she just wants to live a good life and you know, she said if it’s that important, somebody will tell her. I mean, I don’t know what to say to her. I mean, I kind of get it. On the other hand, I’m appalled by it.

Peter: I think that there have been some honest conversations, especially recently, about what some people understand or call the negativity bias in news, especially in news judgment. But I think we also have to grapple with the fact that tragedies and threats to our well being are inherently newsworthy.

They’re important, we can’t just ignore it. News avoidance is understandable on the one hand, but, we have to really underscore the civic duty to stay engaged.

Larry: You know, there’s this phrase, if it bleeds, it leads, and I do this presentation on moral panics, and I have actually a headline that I created using chat GPT, a fake headline, which says, all planes landed safely yesterday, and my point is, you will never see that headline in the newspaper, that every plane that took off landed safely, but if a plane were to crash, that would be front page news, and so, I understand that, because it’s, it’s out of the ordinary.

Not because it’s necessarily bad because it’s out of order yet. There is this tendency when you read about a plane crash to not want to get on a plane because now suddenly planes are in your face very dangerous, even though the only reason it’s on the front page. It’s because it’s so rare.

Peter: Yeah, there’s a proportionality bias there, right that The News Literacy Project has a digital virtual classroom called Checkology that has a variety of lessons that educators can use at no cost for their students.

And, you know, I should say we’re, we’re rigorously nonpartisan. We’re independent of our funders, mostly foundations and individuals, it’s all on our website. But one of those teaches students um, about news judgment and they understand that there are multiple factors that news organizations need to consider.

Something is important, something is, you know, unique or unusual. Those are two of the factors and those things can often be at odds. Something can be, you know, it can be very important, and not very unusual. Or it can be highly unusual and not very important.What’s interesting also factors into that.

So it can be difficult, I think, for journalists so we have a followup lesson where students actually have to take 20 possible stories and pick five for their front page and they have to pick a lead story and so on. And they begin to grapple with the fact that no matter what choice they make, people, some people will disagree.

Some readers will read bias into those choices. Some people will say, well, you’re engaging in sensationalism or look, you picked five negative stories. Or oh, you picked five positive stories and ignored all this important stuff that happened in the world. How can you do that? And so it’s really interesting because different groups of students will make different choices and then talk about those choices.

Do they intentionally work in one or two positive stories? Do they feature a positive story more prominently than a negative story? And so on. So I think those are good exercises for people to go through and really think about having to make those choices themselves.

Larry: And it’s interesting, one area where journalists do make, I call it bias, whatever you want to call it, is every editor, as you point out, has to decide what to cover and what’s on the front page, how often to cover, how to emphasize it. I mean, that happens on both sides of the spectrum.

Peter: Yeah, absolutely. And if you look at more partisan sources online that are more detached from the facts it happens a lot, right? You’ll see links to really unreliable, hyper partisan websites that play really loose with the facts and get things wrong. But I think people can tell, right? Especially if they don’t just watch one news source, but they compare coverage across news outlets. Not just broadcast either, not just across channels, but also watch okay some cable news, but also watch network news and read your local paper and read some stuff from a national paper and you’ll quickly begin to see the differences in judgment and how it’s a huge story here. But nowhere else that’s odd and it begins to sort of show right so there has to be that comparison point we have to have a kind of rich and diverse media diet, and that’s, that’s one big reason, I think.

Larry: So getting this down to personal responsibility as I go, I tend to use Facebook a lot, but it could be any social media platform. I will occasionally say things, see things that I know to be wrong. What should I do? I feel some compulsion to correct the record, but I also realize that I’m not going to convince the person who posted it, maybe, unless they posted it by accident or just without thinking, depending who they are. But how should we respond when we see our friends online post things that we know to be untrue?

Peter: Yeah, look, I think it’s a case by case basis and it kind of depends, right? One important thing that I think often gets lost is to approach false statements online with a kind of principle of charity, first of all. So assume that they’re engaging in good faith, they tried to get it right and address the best, most rational or valid parts of their post.

Like, “Hey, you know, I understand this is a valid concern and an issue that people are talking about and paying attention to in this particular instance, this isn’t what it seems, here’s a link that might provide more context. Because I’m sure you wouldn’t want to get it wrong”. Something like that, I think, can be helpful, but also understand that there will be times when that’s better said in a direct message. Like, “Hey I saw that link you shared. This is an important issue, but, in this case, that’s false. I thought you would probably want to know.” And just leave it at that.

If you do it publicly, sometimes it can start into a sort of showdown. People’s egos get involved and people are watching their witnesses in the comments, right? So that can be tough. We have a great infographic from the news literacy project called how to speak up without starting a showdown that lives on our website at that people can find. We do trainings about this too, how to have productive conversations with folks across those kinds of differences and difficult conversations about what people share.

Larry: So I need to wrap up. Is there anything that maybe I should have asked you that I could ask you later?

Peter: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I hope your listeners have a sense in this election cycle of the importance for everyone to be careful and the kind of the stakes for democracy.

I think the amount of misinformation about our election processes and how they work I expect to be higher this year than 2016 or 2020. And we all need to be on the lookout for it and understand that, you know, missing this information hurts. It hurts democracy. It hurts our country. And, and that’s something that I think I hope everybody across the, the partisan spectrum can get behind and just kind of keep things on the rails in 2024 and push back against falsehoods that are threats to the security of our elections and to our country.

Larry: Peter Adams, the Senior Vice President of Research and Design at the News Literacy Project. Thank you so much. Thank you.

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