Real Class Credit for Taking 'Fake News' Course at University of Michigan

'The course must avoid the trap of treating as legitimate news only left-leaning sources'

Alex Jones' website Infowars has been called "fake news" by some. Photo via Infowars.

The University of Michigan announced last week a course designed to teach students to fight back against so-called fake news.

The course, titled “Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction,” will be taught in fall 2017 as a project of U-M's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the U-M Library.

The term “fake news” has appeared as a fluid label since the presidential election by both left-leaning media outlets and President Donald Trump.

“The University of Michigan Library, which has a long record of improving the way students go about finding, evaluating and using information in their academic work, is fighting back against fake news,” a press release from the university said. The course will be one credit hour, as opposed to the typical three or four credit hours.

“Recent concerns about ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ has us looking for ways to expand our professional efforts to help students become more critical and reflective information consumers,” Laurie Alexander, an associate university librarian, said in the press release.

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One criticism of labeling content “fake news” has been the potential for the label to be used against ideological or partisan organizations to discredit their reporting rather than accurately describing their work.

“Teaching students to be critical consumers of news and information is part of a good liberal arts education,” said Angela Dillard, associate dean for undergraduate education and a professor of Afro-American studies at the college. “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.”

Doreen Bradley, who is designing the course and serves as director of learning programs and initiatives at the U-M Library, said in an email that the course will focus on content that’s completely fabricated.

“Our course materials are still in development, but the definition that we are using is ‘information or a claim that is completely fabricated,’” she said. “So, we are not including partial truths in our definition. Our approach will be on understanding the spectrum of news sources and developing personal strategies to double check news and claims that students read.”

Ashley Thorne, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, an organization that advocates for academic freedom in higher education, said the course needs to avoid treating certain biased news outlets as more legitimate than others.

“This course has potential either to help students pursue the truth, or to reinforce biases against certain types of news,” she said.

“If the course genuinely seeks to teach students to discern the difference between real and false news, it will make a valuable contribution to their education,” Thorne added. “A significant purpose of higher education is the pursuit of truth. In today's world of ‘Onion’ articles, hoax hate crimes, sarcastic tweets, and Photoshop, the truth is easily twisted, taken out of context, or obscured. It is important for Americans to know how to tell when something is fishy, so that they don’t take it on face value.”

“Instructors for the course must avoid the trap of treating as legitimate news only left-leaning sources such as The New York Times and NPR, and discounting media that lean to the right, such as The Wall Street Journal and Fox,” Thorne said.

Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, created a controversy in November when she created her own list of fake news sites. Zimdars included The Blaze, a website created by former Fox News commentator Glenn Beck; Breitbart.com, a news site created by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart; and the National Review, a website based off the magazine by the same name started by conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., as examples of fake news sites.


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