Getting Media Savvy: Judging the Difference Between Real News and Fake

Dr. Chris Roberts, University of Alabama, talks about understanding the political leanings of media outlets during the Sept. 28, 2017, Media Savvy event. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Almost as if it were planned, news about fake news headlined national media coverage the same day that Alabama media experts and citizens who care about staying informed gathered for a Media Savvy discussion Thursday evening at Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute.

Aimed at understanding and navigating today’s changing and confusing media landscape, the forum began and ended with “Real News or Fake News?” games and featured open discussion by audience members and presenters with decades of “real news” reporting experience.

“In some ways, the last decade has been the best of times for those of us who crave information,” said Carol Nunnelley, executive director of the nonprofit Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism and its public service reporting arm, BirminghamWatch and Alabama Humanities Foundation cosponsored the Sept. 28 event and another being held Oct. 5.

“At the same time, it’s difficult to tell what’s what. A decade ago, the focus was on accuracy. Today, media fight for attention and survival,” Nunnelley said. “It’s a real conundrum. More and more, anybody can go into the news business, led by other things than truth telling.”

Leading the Media Savvy forum was Chris Roberts, Ph.D, associate professor of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama, with presenters Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, reporter with WBHM 90.3 public radio, and Virginia Martin, lead news editor of BirminghamWatch.

Roberts detailed the economics that helped change print, broadcast and other media – including the explosion of online and social media news sources. For print media, declining revenues resulted in fewer reporters at newspapers that print fewer copies on fewer days, said Roberts. The three-day-a-week papers in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile are examples, as is The Anniston Star’s six-day-a-week schedule.

Roberts also noted the demise of several Birmingham alternative weekly and monthly newspapers – the Black and White, the Weekly and, most recently, the printed Weld. In many markets, broadcast media have more hours of news, but fewer reporters.

At the same time, purveyors of fake news have proliferated on the internet. Some of that involves people intentionally spreading false information for their own purposes, while other instances involve the growth of sponsored content, which is advertising written in story form.

The public is losing the “gatekeepers of truth,” said Stewart, referring to editors guided by journalistic principles. “In our media organizations today, those positions are not being filled,” she said.

Roberts quoted tips from, the fact-checking news website that was the first to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for online media, to help citizens filter through “news” to find the real. For instance, if a news post does not have attribution or named sources, a date on the story, a reporter who can be found, a photo credit on the picture and a website with an “about us” or contact information, it could be fake.

He also talked about news outlets that try to present information in an unbiased light, while others lean right or left and still others present information with more extreme biases.

The discussion of real news vs. fake news continues Thursday with another Media Savvy: Smart Choices in a Changing Information Age event at Edge of Chaos at the Lister Hill Library at UAB.  The event is free but seating is limited. Register at Event Brite.