Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta ran a child-sex ring from the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich was assassinated last March to stop him from testifying to the FBI.

Those falsehoods — or truths, depending on who you ask — and countless others were the subject of a two-hour forum on media literacy, audience engagement and the evolving role of the press Tuesday afternoon at Hancock College.

"Literacy means more than the ability to read. It also means the ability to discern what one reads," said Diane Balay, "fake news" forum committee coordinator with the League of Women Voters of Santa Maria Valley. "It isn’t easy and few people take the trouble to find out; therefore, they are easily duped."

Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Hancock College, Fund for Santa Barbara and the Santa Maria Times, five panelists — two Hancock college staff members and three working journalists — gave their thoughts on the rise of fake news and the shifting media landscape, and provided guidance on how to navigate potentially false media in a post-fact era.

"We are professional readers," said Kate Adams, professor of English at Hancock, "and I'm here to tell you that this highly trained reader has fallen victim to fake news. We're all in the same boat."

When engaging with media or what could possibly be fake news, Adams urges readers to answer four questions (who is the speaker, who is the audience, what is the message being sent and what is the language being used) before clicking on, liking or sharing a piece of content.

"I've found that those four questions activate my critical reading attention and serve me in good step when thumbing through headlines," she said.

Kellye Cohn, a Hancock librarian, stressed the importance of developing information literacy and good research skills in an increasingly interconnected society. As a librarian, she said it is her duty to teach students how to be informed readers and information critics.

Given the seemingly meteoric rise of fake news and other false or intentionally misleading pieces of content, Cohn is concerned that students will not know how to locate good sources or conduct accurate research.

"[Students] have this belief that all media is biased or not trustworthy," she said. "The belief in fake news is leading to a false sense of information literacy. We need to produce better informed citizens that ... know how to read news and determine whether it's something they should share."

For Marga Cooley, a 40-year veteran of the news industry, recognizing and mitigating fake news is essential to her day-to-day job. Though it is not a new phenomenon, Cooley, the managing editor for Lee Central Coast Newspapers (parent company of the Times, Lompoc Record and Santa Ynez Valley News), said fake news' method of distribution and mode of attack pose new challenges to the model many legacy publications operate on.

"What we have today is a new technology and a new way of accessing fake news," she said, referring to the rise and role the internet plays in the spread of hoaxes and misinformation. "Having fake news fed to us through social media, it is able to microtarget American voters (as far down to groups of 25) through facial recognition and algorithms."

Like other panelists, Cooley stressed the importance of cultivating a strong media mindset and recognizing which sources are reputable and trustworthy.

"We have a society that doesn't take the time to educate itself, and a growing number of people who read soundbites and feed off misinformation," she said. "Local news is the lifeblood of democracy in many ways. If you don't have access to information that is vetted and solid, you'll look for misinformation — you'll read what's there."

While fake news poses many challenges to English-language publications and news outlets, Hugo Morales, founder and executive director of Radio Bilingüe, a Latino public radio network and content producer, said many Spanish-language audiences are simply left out of the media landscape.

"If you were to tune in to any Spanish media service in Santa Maria ... it's a news desert — there is no news," he told the audience. "It may sound shocking but it's true."

The absence of quality journalism and news content in Spanish creates additional barriers for Latinos, specifically those who do not speak English, Morales said.

Like Cooley, Jerry Roberts, a longtime journalist and former executive editor at the Santa Barbara News-Press, discussed fake news as a problem endemic to our society. Though the phrase gained prominence through use by President Trump, Roberts said the issue starts further back than that — with writers like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell raising concern.

"A lot of us tend to associate the term 'fake news' with President Tump, but I would argue that he is not the cause of this — he's a symptom," Roberts said. "What's happened over the last several decades to our society is we've moved out of the age of exposition ... and it has been replaced with an age of show business."

The two-hour forum, including an extended question-and-answer period with the panelists, can be viewed in its entirety at santamariatimes.com.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga



Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.

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