Real journalists talk fake news at Penn State Scranton

Fake news panel participants at start of event

Associate Professor of English Kelley Wagers introduces the journalists who participated in the fake news event: "The World Is Not Coming to an End. Trust Me." A collaborative program hosted by Penn State Scranton and the Scranton Reads program.

Credit: Amy Gruzesky

Real journalists discussed ‘fake news’ at a special panel discussion hosted by Penn State Scranton and the Scranton Reads program on Wednesday afternoon.

“The War of the Worlds” the Orson Welles radio drama based on the novel of the same name, which caused widespread panic and chaos in 1938 when listeners, including some in Scranton, thought an alien invasion was really happening, served as the impetus for the discussion.

The book is also this year’s selection for the Scranton Reads program, which encourages reading by promoting a specific novel for the community to read each October.

Kelley Wagers, associate professor of English at Penn State Scranton organized the panel discussion, which featured professional journalists weighing in on the current fake news phenomenon and offering tips on how to be a better news consumer.

Panelists were: Patrick Abdalla, adjunct instructor in English at Penn State Scranton, a former entertainment editor for The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre, and a campus alumnus; Chris Kelly, columnist for The Scranton Times-Tribune; Laura Legere, environment and energy reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; and Josh McAuliffe, adjunct instructor in English at Penn State Scranton, a former lifestyles reporter for the Scranton Times-Tribune, and a campus alumnus.

The phrase ‘fake news’ may have a different meaning today than it did in 1938, when the radio program aired, but it is still a serious issue and concern.

McAuliffe recounted a story he covered in 2004 when he tried to verify information he obtained during an interview with a source.

His fact-checking resulted in the discovery that none of the entities the source claimed to be working with had ever heard of the individual; that the source had never worked with them; and an ensuing investigation into the person by his employer resulted in his being fired for other falsifications and fraudulent information he had given.

For McAuliffe, the experience underscored the importance of verification and fact-checking when doing a news story to ensure its accuracy.

Abdalla recounted his experience of being a victim of fake news when a caller to a local radio talk show made an untrue statement about a member of his family getting a job because of a family connection.

A statement that was totally false, Abdalla said, adding that the host did not ask for any hard facts from the caller, nor did he do any background checking himself.

Abdalla called the host, who did make an on-air correction, but again, Abdalla said, the host didn’t bother to verify or double-check what he was telling him. He just took both of them – the initial caller and him -- at their word.

Legere is a reporter known for her extensive coverage and reporting on the natural gas fracking industry.

One of her biggest challenges has been dealing with natural gas companies who are very adept at putting out one-sided information as factual and making it very palatable to a variety of users – even using cute internet memes in their messaging.

The amount of one-sided information that is available makes it harder to find viable information, she said.

Kelly was actually the victim of a fake news outlet, who reported that a political candidate had shown up drunk at an event – a statement he knew was false because he had been at that event. He reported the news as fake.

In retaliation, the fake news outlet took a photo of him from The Scranton Times-Tribune, photoshopped it to portray him in a negative light, and published it online.

When Kelly and his newspaper re-published the ‘fake’ photo and identified it as such, the entity claimed that Kelly had violated their copyright on the photo and even tried to get him officially banned from Facebook.

Kelly and The Scranton Times-Tribune had to enlist the help of a media consortium to fight it.

“Don’t be stupid,” he told the audience. “Gullibility feeds fake news (makers and outlets). So stop sharing it.”

“People need to think like a journalist,” Legere said. “We’re skeptical people, but I think everybody can be skeptical – and try to get at least two sources for any kind of information.”

McAulifee agreed. “If something doesn’t look authentic, that’s the first clue. And check other mainstream news sites; if it’s not out there, (and only in one place), that’s another clue.”

The panelists also stressed the importance of local news outlets in providing accurate and trustworthy news to their communities – both newspapers and television stations.

“Who here would have an interest in lying to you?” Kelly asked, adding that as a local journalist, he makes his living reporting on local stories to the local community and his livelihood depends on it.

“The news you can trust most, is the local newspapers,” Legere agreed, adding that many of the major newspapers such as The New York Times, are looking at local newspapers from across the country to get information and story ideas.