The Ethics of Teaching a Course on Digital Literacy
Increasingly, educational institutions are offering courses in “Fake News.” The reason, no doubt, is concern in society that journalists and news media are playing fast and loose with the ethics rules of good, honest journalism. Making up stories, exaggerating facts, failing to use reliable sources and failing to check with two or more sources of information are all manifestations of fake news.
Fake news was named the term of the year in 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary, and in 2017 by the Collins Dictionary. In 2017, the usage of the term had increased by 365 percent since 2016. Complaints about fake news by President Donald Trump have increased awareness of this unethical practice.
That’s not to say the news is always ‘made up’ when it comes to Trump’s sayings, tweets, and exploits but there’s little doubt that some news media do create imaginative stories, spin statements by Trump and otherwise manipulate the facts. But, let’s face it, without Trump’s incessant charges of fake news, the issue might not have provoked such an outcry.
Enter colleges and universities to the rescue. Courses in fake news, oftentimes under the banner of Media Literacy, are increasing. According to Troy Worden, the University of Michigan confirmed last week that it will offer a course in how legitimate news operations help spread “fake news.” A CNN journalist is teaching the class, “News Media Ethics,” and will critique the media’s biased nature.
The course will ask questions such as: “How do journalists cover the news? Do they report it honestly and truthfully? How valid are claims by critics that news media behaved unethically in their coverage of Donald Trump?
Additionally, the course will cover broader “issues of bias, distortion, lack of perspective and other journalistic failings and journalists’ responsibilities to the profession and the public, and …proposed solutions to ethics violations.”
Moreover, questions should be raised about the approach of academia offering courses in fake news. From the outset I question whether a CNN journalist should be teaching the course at Michigan. It creates the appearance of bias given CNN’s perceived leaning toward the left. It doesn’t matter whether the journalist is, in reality, fair in his/her treatment of the topic. It may appear to the casual observer that they wouldn’t be if they work for one of the three cable ‘news’ shows, each of which has a distinct bias in their political point of view.
Second, in academia there is a perceived and, in my opinion, bias of professors towards the left and some reporters don’t mind saying things that either can’t be proved or exaggerate the facts. So, who is going to ensure that the course curriculum presents a balanced approach to the issues surrounding fake news? Don't get me wrong. The same thing occurs by right-leaning professors.
Finally, the Media Literacy course must have a module on social media ethics, which the course at Michigan doesn’t seem to have. Facebook users share media stories without regard to its authenticity. According to Jackson Schroeder, in the last few months leading up to the 2016 election, fake news generated more likes, shares, and engagement than major news sources.
Schroeder claims that from August to November 8, Election Day, the top 20 fake news articles provoked 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. In contrast, the top 20 stories from the 19 major news sources generated just 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments.
I’ve taught ethics for thirty years and have noticed that most ethics courses fall short of their goal to instill characteristics of ethical behavior in college students. Why? It’s because there are no checks and balances over who teaches the course. For example, in teaching tax ethics many professors tell their students how to take advantage of loopholes in the law, which is part of their professional responsibilities. But, is it ethical? The same could be said about digital media ethics.
Finally, every college should teach a course on social media activities and ethics and include digital media ethics, fake news, and lots of other topics related to the need to adhere to a set of ethical standards when posting or sharing something on social media. It’s bigger than one course and when it’s limited to one course, the wrong message is sent that ethics is important just in that narrow arena – digital journalism.