Journalism Fellowship Provides Students with Perspective, Skills to Combat Disinformation

With almost two-thirds of adults in the United States saying that they feel like ‘fake news’ is sowing confusion over basic facts of current issues and events, Cultural Vistas recently launched its Journalism in the Era of Disinformation (JED) Fellowship to better equip eight German and eight American journalists for a modern news media environment plagued by disinformation and falsehood.

Fellows met with journalists and others combating disinformation in a variety of different media environments across Washington, D.C.; Charlottesville, Virginia; and New York City.

Though the travel portion of their fully-funded weeklong program ended in May, the fellows continue to exchange ideas online to deepen their understanding of disinformation with the ultimate aim of sharing their findings with a wider audience.

We recently caught up with the fellows and learned about the key takeaways of their fellowship.

The 2018 JED Fellows in Washington, D.C.

Fake News is Also Old News

The idea that disinformation isn’t a recent phenomenon became clear to the fellows early on in their program. On their first full day, Dr. Cindy Gueli—a DC-based author, historian, and media professional—introduced the fellows to modern trends of media disinformation by tracing their roots all the way back to the Haymarket Riot of Chicago in 1886.

Later that same day, the fellows further learned about the long history of disinformation at DC’s Newseum, where they explored five centuries of news history—most of it predating Facebook.

The Cyclical Nature of Disinformation

The fellows received a more-recent lesson on the history of disinformation when they spent a day walking the now-historic streets of Charlottesville and meeting with a variety of local news organizations that covered the tragic events of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally which brought a national spotlight on the small city in Virginia.

Among other highlights, the fellows received a first-person account of the difficult editorial decisions of covering the rally from a local CBS station’s news director, heard The Daily Progress news team describe how one of their photographers won a Pulitzer prize for the most iconic photo of the event, and met with journalists at C-VILLE Weekly—who were so close to the vehicular attack of August 12 that they actually heard it happen.

Editor Lisa Provence and Reporter Samantha Baars from the C-VILLE Weekly describe their editorial decisions as well as being able to hear events unfold during the Unite the Right Rally.

By getting both past and recent historical perspectives on disinformation, the fellows were better able to see the connection between disinformation and its effects.

Fellow Marjan Riazi said, “After learning more historical context and the cyclical nature of disinformation in journalism, I recognize how threats against research and evidence-based information directly correlate to social upheaval. When a dominant group risks losing systemic power, destabilizing truth while encouraging baseless fear is an effective weapon.”

Getting with the Times

But despite their appreciation for the long history of disinformation, the fellows said the lessons they learned about the contemporary media landscape were even more important. The program itself, as well as their experiences since, may help explain why.

For instance, the group initially learned of how The New York Times became a world-renowned publication by going against the trends of yellow journalism in the late 19th century to focus on “all the news that’s fit to print.” Yet at the paper’s headquarters, they instead discussed the modern prevalence of disinformation online with Justin Bank, a Senior Editor for Internet and Audience.

John Daniszewski of the Associated Press discusses using new media tools at the AP.

Similarly, at the NY offices of the Associated Press, fellows met with John Daniszewski, the AP’s Vice President and Editor at Large for Standards. Rather than focusing on ethical standards and reporting techniques, Daniszewski described how he has helped the AP combat disinformation by expanding the AP’s global enterprise, launching its international investigations team, and publishing a weekly publication of falsehoods, “A look at what didn’t happen this week.”

This awareness of the issues that modern-day journalists face has become even more apparent to the group since the program’s conclusion.

Using New Media Tools to Join the Fight

Since completing their program in May, each fellow has worked on communicating the lessons of their exchange with a wider audience where they live. Though print media is not entirely discouraged, the fellows have clearly shown their own appreciation for the importance of media literacy by choosing to publish online accounts of their experiences, post video breakdowns online, as well as share views and insights with each other via social media.

Some fellows even suggest that widespread public media literacy could be the key to breaking the historic cycle of disinformation.

“Because disinformation has and will continue to permeate society, it is the role of the populace to seek truth and expand media literacy as a tool to recognize falsehoods, bias, and intent. By increasing accessible, free, and public media education in order to develop a culture rooted in critical analysis, we have the potential to combat disinformation in any era,” said Marjan.

Fellow Daniel Wydra further explained the paramount importance of media literacy for the fellows themselves—as well as the resolve necessary to carry on the fight.

“Disinformation is not a new phenomenon. But as rumors and intended fake news can be spread easier and faster in today’s digital news environment, we need to know some skills to counteract – and to keep calm,” he said.

Though the challenges they face are monumental, the fellows’ recognition of the importance of historical context reveals that they understand the gravity of what they face. On the other hand, their appreciation of modern media literacy demonstrates that they also value the modern day tools at their disposal.

To us, that sounds like a group of journalists who understand the significance of disinformation, their own capacities to help resolve it, and the calm resolve needed to make it happen—a winning recipe.

In case you missed it, take a look back at some of the more memorable moments from the 2018 JED Fellowship below: