The nation is justifiably dismayed over the virulence of social-media-borne “fake news” that exploits people’s worst paranoias and prejudices. Citizens are not only casting votes based on disinformation manufactured by clickbait artists but — in at least one recent instance in Washington, D.C. — taking up arms against fabricated child traffickers in imaginary pizzeria dungeons.
The first wave of proposed responses, centering on self-policing by social-media platforms, may make fictitious news harder to find and share, but does not cure the underlying problem any more than moving the liquor bottles to a higher shelf cures alcoholism. Putting government regulators in the business of deciding which news is “suitable” or “appropriate” would be both unconstitutional and an express lane to tyranny.
What, then, to do?
Well, how has social progress ever happened? How have succeeding generations of Americans become more tolerant of people from different backgrounds, more conscious of the hazards of drug abuse and unsafe sex, more aware of the importance of conserving energy and natural resources? Primarily by way of a public education system that both teaches and practices these values as a foundational part of citizenship.
Now, let’s look at how public education treats news.
The consumption and creation of news has been marginalized at the college and K-12 levels, to the point of nonexistence at many institutions. Students who attempt serious public-accountability journalism are increasingly met with obstruction, threats and even punishment.
Every day, students across the country are told by their schools to publish only news that flatters government officials and reflects favorably on government policies. Students like Illinois’ McKenzie Lacefield, threatened with disciplinary action and the shutdown of her high school’s newspaper because she tried to inform the community about the detrimental effects of changing the start time of the school day. And students like Michigan’s Ninotchka Valdez, whose principal vetoed an article exposing dissatisfaction with the school’s diligence in responding to anti-gay bullying.
This is where the devaluation of news as a civic good originates — with “news” that is purposefully skewed to deceive and mislead.
Censored news is fake news.
An alarming new report from the American Association of University Professors, “Threats to the Independence of Student Media” (which I helped author), describes escalating hostility on college campuses by image-obsessed administrators and even by readers, who’ve been trained by their educational institutions that journalism is “bad” if it provokes controversy or challenges prevailing assumptions:
It has become disturbingly routine for student journalists and their advisers to experience overt hostility that threatens their ability to inform the campus community and, in some instances, imperils their careers or the survival of their publications(.) … Administrative efforts to subordinate campus journalism to public relations are inconsistent with the mission of higher education to provide a space for intellectual exploration and debate.
At the University of North Carolina-Asheville, students are forbidden from interviewing campus decisionmakers unless their questions have been reviewed by a public-relations screener, who sends back government-scripted questions from which interviewers may not deviate. At West Virginia’s Fairmont State University, a high-performing journalism instructor was fired without explanation in a two-sentence email, and the student editor-in-chief shown the door, because their newspaper — truthfully — alerted the campus to health hazards in campus housing.
It is now an article of faith, accepted uncritically by a generation spoon-fed “positive” news about their schools, that government agencies have the authority to distort news coverage to “protect the brand,” as if a public education had no more civic purpose than canned soup.
It’s no longer regarded as a matter of public outrage when journalists are brazenly attacked by their own campus administrators — administrators like University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto, so enraged by adverse coverage of his institution’s sluggish response to sexual harassment that he launched a potentially bankrupting lawsuit against the campus newspaper and a public campaign to ruin the reputation of its student editor, whom he accuses of “sensationalism.”
There is a direct cause-and-effect line between Capilouto’s brand of vitriol and the devolution of civic dialogue into campaign-rally mobs chanting “hang the media.”
The way educational institutions treat journalists makes a difference. Survey research by the University of Kansas demonstrates that students who work in high-school newsrooms where First Amendment freedoms are respected report higher confidence in their own civic efficacy than students whose schools censor.
Schools and colleges profess to be in the business of producing engaged, participatory citizens — when “civic engagement” means mock trials and model legislatures. But “sandbox civics” is no substitute for roll-up-your-sleeves participation in campus governance, and that requires an editorially independent news source able to meet the community’s information needs.
Here’s some non-fake news: More and more states are awakening to the reality that meaningful civic preparation requires protecting journalists against the worst excesses of image-motivated censorship. Since 2015, three states — Illinois, Maryland and North Dakota — have enacted statutes curbing the authority of public schools and colleges to dictate the content of journalistic media. That brings to 10 the number of states with commonsense legal protection dignifying the work of campus journalists, with similar legislation pending in Michigan, Minnesota and New Jersey.
How do we fight the fake news epidemic? We start by making sure our educational institutions are inoculating their students — and not proliferating the virus.
Attorney Frank D. LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center, www.splc.org, a legal advocacy group supporting student journalists.