Zoom screenshot of panelists
Moderator Dianne Bystrom leads media professionals in the discussion about consuming news in an age rife with misinformation. The panelists are (from left) Mason Walker, Peggy Rupprecht, Tobin Beck and Ryan Teten. Photo by Chin Tung Tan/NNS.

Media experts are challenging consumers of news to become critical thinkers in an age where the news media is constantly accused of perpetuating misinformation. 

The League of Women Voters of Nebraska hosted a virtual webinar, “Media Literacy in an Age of Disinformation,” on Nov. 4 in an effort to reach high school and college students who are interested in learning how the public’s perception of news has changed over the years.

In 2019, Pew Research Center asked Americans what they would consider a “very big problem” in the country. Fifty percent of them answered “made-up news/info.” 

“Journalists tend to rank toward the bottom when it comes to the level of confidence Americans placed in them,” said Mason Walker, a panelist for the webinar and a research analyst at Pew Research Center whose work focuses on news and the media.

Walker’s research showed trust toward national news organizations had declined from 76% in 2016 to 58% in 2021, and more than half of U.S adults said it’s better for society if the American public is skeptical of the media. 

To this, Tobin Beck, an assistant professor of journalism and political science at Concordia University in Seward, said that it’s healthy and essential for society to be skeptical. In fact, he reminds himself to be skeptical of what he reads, but there is a big difference between being skeptical and cynical. 

“You don’t want to be cynical with expecting that news is just bad,” Beck said. “Reporters are only in it for helping some particular point of view.”

However, the decline of trust in the media is not a phenomenon exclusive to the media itself. Walker said that Pew Research Center also discovered people were losing trust in various levels of government and corporations. 

The research analyst asked the audience to keep in mind that this phenomenon is happening during a time when fewer resources are devoted to news. There had been drastic drops in newsroom employment rates and revenues in certain areas of the media, especially the newspaper industry which has “really shriveled over the years.” 

It’s important, Walker underscored, to understand this contextual information when trying to understand the issue.

Walker found an “interesting paradox” where people rate their own abilities to spot fake news better than others but still struggle to differentiate between a fact and an opinion. 

“The consensus is that while people place a lot of confidence in themselves, they don’t place a lot of confidence in others to navigate the media environment and find accurate information,” he said.

These days, when the debate over fake news is rampant, Beck said it’s crucial for news consumers to employ critical thinking skills to look at all sides of an issue.

“It’s a good idea to consider that you might be wrong, and to think about what things look like from the other side of an issue,” Beck said.

He added that readers tend to focus on topics they like and get information from people they trust. He encouraged readers to look at multiple sources to compare how they are using the facts they have gathered.

“Do the facts line up? Or are they told from different perspectives? Those different perspectives can greatly change how those facts are perceived and what they mean,” he said.

Peggy Rupprecht, an associate professor of journalism at Creighton University, echoed Beck’s words about the importance of checking multiple sources. 

“It’s important to consume a variety of news sources,” she said. “If you are conservative, look at liberal media or vice versa, because then you get a full and complete picture.”

Unfortunately, the reality of wanting to consume a variety of sources is that sometimes we just don’t have the time to do that. Ryan Teten, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, noted that the next best thing for us to do when we have a limited amount of time is to reduce an entire story to a single headline or picture.

“We run the danger of what’s known as slacktivism, which is reading the headline, getting worked up about it and then forwarding it all to your friends without actually checking in to see, ‘OK, what is the story? What’s going on behind it?” said Teten.

Teten advised consumers of news to dig deeper than just a click or like and to remember that the news we read is interpreted, to some degree, by the reporters who wrote them.

Like Reuppercht, he said getting outside your own echo chamber and becoming open-minded decreases the possibility of encountering misinformation. Trapping yourself in an echo chamber will lead to you being surrounded by people who sound the same as you. 

“And boy, if that’s misinformation, that’s all you get day and night. And so, in effect, that perception becomes your reality,” Teten said.

The media professionals discussed how the ways people consume news are rapidly changing these days. Picking up the newspapers used to be the easiest way to read about the latest news, but Teten pointed out that it’s increasingly popular to stay informed through social media, such as watching satirical news programs on YouTube.

He singled out Jon Stewart, The Daily Show host, who said people should not hold him accountable for the information he shared because it was satire.

“Well, you can’t take that position. You’re providing more news in your half-hour than the national news is doing anymore,” Teten said.

In contrast, Rupprecht wanted to put some degree of responsibility on the consumers themselves to do some critical thinking.

“We need to realize that news organizations aren’t monolithic,” Rupprecht said. “We live in a really dynamic and complex world. To say unilaterally that, ‘Oh, we can’t trust the news media. Everything is fake!’ I think that is really a bit simplistic.”

There are “nuances” to consuming news, Rupprecht said, and it’s on the consumers to discern what news is credible and what isn’t.

In 2019, as much as 53% of Americans said the news media have the most responsibility in reducing the amount of made-up news, according to Walker. Beck urged the media and consumers to work together to combat disinformation.

“Yes, definitely hold the media accountable,” Beck said. “But I also think it’s incumbent on us, as consumers, to also be able to do that. Once we realize we can do that, and we have the skills and the power to do that, then it becomes a very empowering sort of thing to think of our role as citizens in holding the media accountable, but also holding our leaders accountable.”

I'm a senior journalism major with minors in English and film studies.