University to offer fake news mini-course next semester

Sunday, March 5, 2017 - 1:54pm

Next semester, a new one-credit class titled "Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction" will be offered to undergraduate students by the University of Michigan library system. The class will be aimed at dispelling biases about the news and teaching students how to look at media with a more critical eye.

Though the topic of fake news has been widely discussed in the context of the current political climate, Doreen Bradley, the University’s director of learning programs and initiatives—who is one of the four designers of the course—said the course has broader roots.

“I think the whole political environment kind of raised the issue even more, but our sense was that this was a needed issue even before the political turmoil of the fall,” Bradley said. “It will include things, obviously, related to politics, but we really want to focus on things like if you get something about health news, how do you know if you can rely on that health news? So we really want to make it a course that applies to students’ entire lives.”

According to Bradley, the concept of discerning the truthfulness of online news comes up in many other courses at the University. The new class builds off these predecessors, like Applied Liberal Arts 105, a class about digital research.

“We teach a current course called ALA 105, and in it we do a segment on news to begin with, even just evaluating general websites that students find on the web,” Bradley said. “We just have seen over the past couple years a need to evaluate news and other types of non-scholarly information.”

Social media has played a role in the fake news problem. Facebook has been heavily criticized in its role in dispensing unreliable news sources to users’ newsfeeds. Recently, the site has added warning labels to posts that have disputed information.

Because of the role libraries play in helping to sort out different types of information, Bradley thinks the library system is the perfect place for the new course. She wants to use the class to teach students the skills librarians — and many other professions — must use every day.

“As librarians, this is exactly what we do,” she said. “We evaluate everything that comes through — who wrote it, what’s it purpose, what is their purpose in (writing) it … everybody’s being asked to do research, whether you need to find this or that, and it’s a skill that everybody needs.”

Angela Dillard, LSA associate dean for undergraduate education, told the Michigan News a critical view of the media is a crucial part of a well-rounded liberal arts education. She echoed Bradley’s thoughts that the new class focuses on a more specific part of that skill.

"Teaching students to be critical consumers of news and information is part of a good liberal arts education," Dillard said. "Students are learning this skill in all their classes. But today there is so much information that learning how to assess its validity is more challenging than ever. This course addresses that need."

Bradley and the other librarians involved in the course don’t yet know what kind of response there will be to the course, but they’re hoping to attract many students. As a one-credit mini-course, the class will only last the first seven weeks of the fall semester and will be taught by University librarians.  

LSA senior Rebecca Rothbart, the president of the Michigan Association of Communication Studies, said she sees connections between the fake news course and her communication classes. She said she is interested to see what the mini-course leads to, but also how the topic of fake news will be further integrated into other classes at the University.

“I think from my standpoint as a comm student, this course seems to align with other coursework we’ve talked about, and even is a topic I’m sure will be integrated into future courses,” Rothbart said. “I think if it becomes … a class (communication students) can get credit for, it would definitely be a worthwhile class to take.”