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A panel consisting of University of Montana Mansfield Library web service librarian Jaci Wilkinson, UM journalism professor Dennis Swibold and Missoulian editor Kathy Best backed up the retired director of UM’s Broadcast Media Center with their own explanations. The event was sponsored by Humanities Montana.

“I do not use the words ‘fake news,’ Wilkinson said. “I prefer the term ‘misinformation,’ or the newer term ‘disinformation’. That originally came from the Russian, ‘dezinformatsiya’ from the era of Stalin and the KGB. It was information intended to create distrust in people.”

To combat organized attempts to discredit real news, Swibold said people need to become literate news readers. That means examining the sources of news reports for credibility and transparency: are they right more often than wrong, and do they share sources and own up to errors?

“It’s up to reporters to keep pushing for the truth,” Swibold said. “There may be perspectives they haven’t considered. We try to always end an interview with a question: ‘Who else should be in this conversation?'”

“It’s not enough to just do a Google search,” added Best. “You need to know how to check a source. So much information comes at us like a tsunami. You have to be literate about how you use that powerful tool (smartphone) in your hand. And if there’s bad information out there,
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we should be willing to say that.”

Wilkinson said the influence of the Internet shows up in two ways. One is the proliferation of news providers that recycle the work of others without paying for it, diluting the value of the original investigative work. The second is the way social media companies’ search algorithms push results that amplify more extreme versions of opinions we already have.

“That’s an insidious role that technology companies play in our lives,” Wilkinson said. For example, an analysis of the internet search history of Dylan Roof (who murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in 2015) showed increasingly obsessive material purporting the racial inferiority of his victims.

Swibold recalled how growing up, news judgment was simpler just because news itself was more scarce. His household had one newspaper and three TV networks to choose from, not thousands of Internet sites reinforcing whatever point of view he might espouse. The idea of “balanced coverage” can mean a crackpot gets equal time with verifiable facts.

“That’s symmetry, not balance,” Swibold said. “You’re not telling people where the weight of the information really is. A term that’s starting to get used is ‘Here’s what we know, and what we don’t know.’ We can’t say like Walter Cronkite,
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‘That’s the way it is.’ Walter Cronkite could not exist today.”