The University of Massachusetts Amherst

#UMassNewsLiteracy: Understanding Reliable News & Sources During Times of Crisis [Q&A]

Steve Fox, Senior Lecturer and Sports Journalism Director.Steve Fox, Senior Lecturer and Sports Journalism Director.
Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed much of peoples’ day-to-day lives online. This has created an opportunity for people and organizations to spread harmful messaging over the Internet, whether they mean to or not. Like the novel coronavirus, misinformation and disinformation can spread like contagions. 

There's an old saying that I stress often in class: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on."

During extraordinary times like these, when public health is a top priority, it is crucial that consumers of news fully grasp the information they absorb from the media. Steve Fox, senior lecturer and sports journalism director, started circulating the hashtag #UMassNewsLiteracy on Twitter to draw attention to the need for news literacy and to enable his students to closely monitor the changing digital news environment. 

“The definition of News Literacy developed by the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University is the one I use in the class,” said Fox. "News Literacy is the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports, whether they come via print, television, the internet or social media."

Fox also teaches a course in news literacy. According to him, the need for news literacy has never been more urgent.

“This isn't a traditional class focused on how to do journalism, it's a class focused on developing skills for the news consumer —skills needed to be a good citizen in a democracy.” said Fox. “I believe news literacy has always been important but never more so than today.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Steve, why is news literacy important? 

Discerning between propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, and advertising is important to a functioning democracy and today it's needed to understand the health crisis we're in. 

Gone is the era where the news consumer sat in front of a television and an anchor gave us the important news of the day. The model has changed so that the news consumer is now in charge of what news they want to consume (and when). News consumers today can access stories anywhere and anytime thanks to technology and mobile delivery to our phones. More importantly, the news consumer is making the decision on which stories to read, listen to, and watch. 

Today, the news consumer is in control and it's an awesome responsibility.

What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

Misinformation is defined as information that is wrong, erroneous, or misleading. Disinformation is the promotion of misinformation for political or financial gain. The main difference is intent.

Identifying bad actors who are involved in disinformation campaigns can become politicized these days but it's important to figure out why different actors are trumpeting bad information. If a source has a “dog in the race” and is vested in a certain outcome, then you should be skeptical of that information.

Why is news literacy significant in times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic?

There's an old saying that I stress often in class: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on." 

News literacy is important during a pandemic because you want to make sure the correct, accurate, truthful information is being distributed to the public. When bad information gets out first it's difficult to get people to pay attention to the correction or the correct information that comes out later — think about how we first thought those under 60 wouldn't be impacted by COVID-19. With the health and safety of the public at stake, it's more important than ever that news consumers are acting on reliable information that has been vetted by reputable sources. 


#UMassNewsLiteracy Twitter feed


#UMassNewsLiteracy Twitter feed


#UMassNewsLiteracy Twitter feed


What are some ways everyday consumers of news can practice news literacy?

1. Be skeptical. I'm not saying “cynical;” no, skeptical. Don't take anything at face value. As humans we inherently want to believe in the goodness of others and today more than ever we want news that gives up hope. So, we all wanted to believe that dolphins were swimming in the canals of Venice. And, sure enough those photos went viral in a hurry because we all wanted it to be true. It wasn't.

2. Share With Care. This is closely related to No. 1. We are all publishers today thanks to social media. When we come across a piece of news, the natural impulse is to share it. And we as news consumers tend to place a lot of weight on news shared by friends. Be skeptical. Confirm the information is true before sharing.

3. Slow Down. We all want our information and we want it now and we want to share it now. While that's a natural human reflex, we all need to slow down. Lives are at stake. Spreading misinformation can have deadly consequences. Take a moment, check the source, see if other news outlets are reporting the same thing. This critical thinking takes time in a world where we all want to be first. But, as my old boss used to say: it's better to be second and right than first and wrong.

4. Finally, Read Past the Headlines. Again, this takes time. But reading past the headlines allows you to verify facts, assess sourcing and determine whether the information being provided is coming from a reputable source. Read past the headlines and follow the story over time. The way that journalism works is that reporters present information they're aware of during a moment in time. That information changes over time. It's our obligation as news consumers and citizens to follow the story over time.