How black audiences are more at risk of misinformation and media illiteracy

Aaron K. Foley
Oct 25 · 7 min read
Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

I came to the JSK Journalism Fellowships this fall with one professional project to work on and one personal goal for myself. The personal goal was somewhat tied to my project: I wanted to give up Facebook and Twitter for the 10-month period I’ll be here at Stanford so I wouldn’t have any distractions from my obligations as a fellow.

I’ve been using Facebook without interruption for 15 years; I joined as a college student when my alma mater was №24 on the list of schools where the platform became available. I’ve been using Twitter nonstop for 10 years. And I started to think about how I’ve been in a long digital marriage to both platforms and wondered whether I needed to give space to things that are still new and figuring themselves out.

Neither blackout lasted long. I deleted both Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, but I found myself logging into my accounts manually through my phone’s browser. I didn’t feel like I was missing news or updates, because I still regularly visit news sites and occasionally watch morning TV news. I was going back for the same reason why I started accounts on both platforms, which was to keep up with what my friends were doing. But coming back to the two platforms — Facebook especially — reminded me of the real reason I was trying to give them up.

I was hesitant to say out loud that “obligation to JSK” was really a cover for the fact that I can’t put up with how my Facebook friends share and disseminate information on the platform, and I was looking for any excuse for a break. Thanks to a series of very public-facing jobs, I have more than 4,900 Facebook friends, scratching the surface of the 5,000-friend limit. That’s allowed me windows into very different populations of how people share information, where they’re getting this information from, and what they do when they receive it and distribute it to their circles of friends.

I’m from Detroit, a city whose population hovers around being 80 percent African-American, and my Facebook friends list is about the same. Here’s where it might get complicated.

My news feed is regularly a hodgepodge of links to dubious scientific claims of cancer-curing plants and herbs, aggregations of celebrity soundbites, obituaries of black celebrities who have long passed, links to unvetted political news sites (a growing issue in Michigan), crime stories from user-aggregated news sites and long-outdated local news. Periodically I’ll post status updates begging my friends to “check the date!” or asking “is that news site legit?” but nothing seems to work. And when I accepted that Facebook would just be the repository for all these garbage links, I gave up hope that any of this would ever change.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t. So I’m working on a second project idea to focus on why black news consumers end up sharing what they share, and how misinformation and disinformation spreads through this community. (And incidentally, I’m staying on Facebook and Twitter a little longer than expected.)

The reason why black news consumers might share a link on Facebook about herbs that cure cancer, for example, is because several forms of cancer run rampant in our population, and we might want to educate the next person on how to prevent it. Problem is, sometimes those links come from dubious, non-medical sources and the inclination to further research the topic gets trumped by the eagerness to help someone find a cure for cancer — and the instant gratification that comes with sharing that bit of information. It’s the same with links that might tell you about a crime in your neighborhood (despite how old the crime might be), anything that suggests a speedy impeachment of the American president, or telling people about a famous celebrity who died (because if there are two things that many African-Americans hold sacred, it’s the idolization of our legendary figures and the pomp and circumstance around death).

Add to this the community and perception of safety that black news consumers have built within Facebook (and Twitter as well) over the years, and you have places like Detroit which have become hotbeds for misinformation. Often when we talk about “fake news’ in the United States, it applies to something political within the purview of white Americans. We don’t really discuss fake news in other contexts, especially how it affects black news consumers — particularly those who lack media literacy, may not live in a coastal city, or may not live in a city at all.

We have growing news deserts with black audiences, and growing media illiteracy. And on the horizon is further interference in how we consume information — I’m thinking of the Cambridge Analytica scandal — and, worse, what could happen if those who do lack the literacy easily fall for what tricksters working with artificial intelligence have in store for us. While I’m here with JSK, I’d like to find answers to a few questions:

1. Who should hold responsibility for vetting news and information that is shared among mostly black audiences?

2. How might we increase value among black news consumers so that they are treated more like an asset in their communities rather than a throwaway audience for easy clicks?

3. Where does media literacy begin for black news consumers?

I believe the confluence of social platforms becoming a primary conduit of information for black news consumers and news organizations’ reliance on those platforms has led to a lack of interest in putting value in black news consumers. TV news stations, for example, have historically sensationalized on-air crime stories. That same mentality applies to their digital strategy; you’ve probably seen often how the digital arm of a TV station shares a headline about a crime, only for the actual crime to have been committed far outside the viewing area and the story reported by an affiliate station or a wire service. And in TV markets like Detroit, where on-air personalities have held the same anchor chairs for a decade or more, these stations know they have built-in trust with their audience that migrate to their websites. (No one will ever say “ClickOnDetroit dot com said” about a story; they’ll say “Channel 4 said,” when referring to any story reported by Detroit’s NBC affiliate, digital or otherwise, because virtually every black Detroiter colloquially identifies that affiliate as Channel 4.)

For months, “news” circulates about the R&B singer Avant having a terminal illness. As of this post, the singer is still alive.

Something else to consider is the decline of print media everywhere. In my hometown of Detroit, the newsrooms are getting smaller and whiter. There is upheaval in daily journalism in New Orleans, where the black population is 60 percent. In Alabama, Advance Local owns three papers — Birmingham (73 percent black), Mobile (50 percent black) and Huntsville (31 percent black) — that no longer publish daily. Advance began that experimentation in cutting newspaper circulation in 56-percent black Flint and 46-percent black Saginaw. And while there was pushback from the Advance-owned Ann Arbor News about a New York Times story that claimed a student newspaper was the town’s only news source, my thoughts were with Ypsilanti, a neighboring college town with a 30 percent black population that once had its own Advance outlet. Today, the News no longer has anyone dedicated to covering the day-to-day activity of either the college, the city or the township that encompasses both. Considering the nationwide conversation about diversity in newsrooms and what coverage is lost when those newsrooms are not reflective of the communities they serve, what information gaps are left open with black audiences when those newsrooms can’t fill them?

(You’ll notice that none of these cities mentioned are New York City, Washington, D.C., or Atlanta, which is where many national news outlets, including ones catering directly to a black audience, tend to amplify coverage. It’s national news every time Howard University or Morehouse College makes changes within their administration or curricula, or if rent prices go up in Harlem. When rent prices go up in Detroit, or when a smaller HBCU has controversy, there’s hardly anything. But that’s another topic.)

The Yak!, a former Detroit Free Press insert

Entry points to media have also disappeared. When I was younger, the Detroit Free Press had the Yak!, a kids’ newspaper insert for elementary school-aged readers. That was preceded by the MC Timz, a teen section for readers of the Michigan Chronicle, a weekly African-American newspaper. Both of those are gone. So are national “for kids” publications: Weekly Reader, which I read in elementary school; “Nick News,” Nickelodeon’s former kids’ news show, which my younger siblings and cousins will never know the joy of; and Channel One News, the now-former cable news channel that beamed into schools nationwide, but began winding down in 2018. These were all news resources Detroiters of a certain age like me had at our disposal when we had a more robust public-school system. In the last decade-plus, Detroit’s public schools have had well-documented challenges and none of these news providers exist (or exist in their older format), leading me to wonder if we’ve misled a generation of black news consumers who grew up with social media as their only information platform.

I’ll be exploring these issues in the coming months, and I welcome input from others interested in ways we can address this crisis. If you’ve got an interest in ways to bring black news consumerism closer to the top of today’s pressing concerns in journalism, I’d like to hear from you. Please feel free to email me or tweet me at @aaronkfoley.

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

Aaron K. Foley

Written by

John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, author, “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass,” City of Detroit’s first chief storyteller, ex-BLAC Detroit editor.

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

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