Behold the fake news minefield

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This is the first of a two-part series examining what you read and hear, how you process it — and why we all need to understand more about the flood of information coming our way in this age of technology.

TODAY: Two key phrases we really must grasp — peer reviews and media literacy.

Let’s say you’ve just read about a new study.

It can be about anything: a flu increase in Holland, the effect of apple juice on pre-teen growth, or registration of Hispanic voters in Arizona.

You might find one of these studies in a newspaper, or some magazine while you’re waiting in a doctor’s office. You might just stumble across something online.

What these studies have in common, generally, is hard work by competent researchers — using solid, proven methodology to provide results.

The work on these projects may have been done by medical scientists or political scientists.

In any case, what you are likely to do is take the study results at face value.

And that brings us to our first key phrase: “peer review.”

Not too many years ago, all those studies would have been carefully vetted by other experts in the same (or related) field of research.

“The idea here is to remove bias, whether intentional or not,” said Josh Misner, North Idaho College professor of communication, “by allowing research purposes, methods and findings to be reviewed by others who do not have proverbial skin in the game, so to speak.

“This way, research that ends up published has been carefully vetted.

“Basically, if it is peer-reviewed ... and we trust that process, then we needn’t re-research certain phenomena. We can assume it’s true and move forward.”

The problem in this era of 24-hour news — and rewards for being first to uncover and release new information — is that peer reviews are lengthy and cumbersome.

Misner points out that when research is done with speed foremost in mind and then not reviewed, the margin for error goes up dramatically.

And if there are mistakes...

“Perhaps the research was fatally flawed,” Misner said, “and once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it can’t be put back.”

SO ARE you getting good information when you see a new study or interesting set of statistics?


But maybe not.

Therefore, the next phase of the process is basically in your hands, and it brings us to our second key phrase: “media literacy.”

Misner teaches a course at NIC in media literacy, which is also called information literacy.

Essentially, it refers to our ability to know — or learn — whether material we read or hear is accurate. Or at least, that it has enough proper sourcing and research that we can assume most of the information is correct.

Misner points to a study by the well-respected Zenith Research Group that suggests Americans absorb 10 hours of media per day — which sounds like an absurd number until you consider that it includes everything from the internet to magazines to car radio to billboards and your TV at home.

“Over the last two decades,” Misner said, “European countries have instituted mandatory media literacy education programs within primary schools.”

Misner insists that understanding how we properly consume information has become as important as math, reading or science — and yet while the rest of the world takes in 50 percent less media per day than the United States, this country has no coherent K-12 education program for media literacy.

Further, he believes it could take generations to change, and the damage may be immense.

SATURDAY: Connecting the dots: Can peer reviews ever be more efficient? How can we improve our own media literacy?


Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press.


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Twitter: @BrandNewDayCDA

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