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Is it fake news?

NY newspaper educator helps students find real news across platforms

September 27, 2019
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Mary Miller stood in front of the students in grades 7 through 9 in the Lake Placid Middle/High School auditorium Monday morning, Sept. 16, and mentioned "Froot Loops" cereal in her talk about fake news.

"I LOVE Froot Loops!" shouted a male student.

Miller immediately christened him the Froot Loops expert. She's the education services director for the New York Newspaper Publishers Association and was giving a presentation titled, "News Media Literacy: Seeking and Finding the Truth in a Fake News World." She took out a box of Froot Loops for a demonstration on how to verify real information.

Article Photos

Mary Miller of the New York Newspaper Publishers Association talks to Lake Placid High School freshman Caleb Thomas Monday, Sept. 16 during a presentation in the auditorium. He was playing the role of a reporter.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

What's in the box? Is it really Froot Loops or something else?

"How would you verify what's in the box? Miller asked.

"Well, first I'd listen to the box," said the Froot Loops expert.

Fact Box

Stopping fake news

- Consider the source.

- Read beyond.

- Check the author.

- Supporting sources?

- Check the date.

- Is it a joke?

- Check your biases.

- Ask the experts.


Ask key questions

- Who made the message?

- Who is the target audience (how do you know)?

- Who paid for this? Or who gets paid if you read or respond to this message?

- Who might benefit or be harmed by this?

- What important information is left out or missing?

- Is this credible (and what makes you think so)?

- Is the main point proven by verifiable evidence?

"OK. So here," she said, handing him the box. "Shake it up." He shook the box. "Sound good?"

"It sounds like Froot Loops," he said, adding, "It seems a bit heavy."

"So what do you think might be in there?"

"Nothing good."

"Why don't you open it since it's already partially open and see what's actually in there."

He found a bag of egg noodles.

"Ah yeah! I LOVE egg noodles!" he said.

As part of NYNPA's Newspapers in Education program, Miller travels around the state teaching students about news media literacy. Miller also gave a presentation later that day for Lake Placid students in grades 10-12 and repeated the program for students in Saranac Lake the next day. The Lake Placid presentations were self-funded, and the Saranac Lake presentations were funded through the Adirondack Foundation. (Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the programs were funded by the Cloudsplitter Foundation, which will be funding future programs.)

Miller's goal is to help students distinguish between authentic journalism and other forms of information that's being distributed through the media landscape.

"Fake news has become a term that we're all too familiar with, and while I don't like the term fake news, misinformation and disinformation are part of our reality." she said after the program. "Pandora's box has been opened, and now we have to deal with that reality that there are people who are deliberately trying to change the message or morph the message. And we as news consumers are responsible to make sure that we do our best to get the information correct."

With a slide show, demonstrations and a handout, Miller offered the students a lot of information in 80 minutes. If there's one take-away from that experience, she said, it's "Question. Always question."

Is this accurate? Is it fact or fiction? How can I tell? Does it have an attribution? Is there a byline?

"Verify, independence and accountability. Who wrote this? Why did they write this? And is this person objective? Does this person have a stake in the game? ... That questioning should never go away."


What is fake news?

Instead of the term "fake news," Miller prefers the terms "misinformation" and "disinformation."

"You're thinking, 'What's the difference?' Well there is a slight difference," she told the students.

Misinformation is when information gets passed along by rumor that - by accident - is not necessarily true.

"So it's when you unknowingly pass information that's fake or not real."

Disinformation is when somebody makes up something knowing that it's incorrect and chooses to pass it along as though it's real to try and fool people.


Why now?

In the old days, people got their news by newspapers, then by radio and television. It was one-way communication, and the only people who could distribute news were the people who owned the printing press, radio station or TV station.

"Then the internet happened," Miller said. "It's the wild, wild West of information."

With the internet and now smartphones, everyone has the capability to create and distribute news and information.

"It gets a little confusing because how do you know who to trust?" she said.

Lake Placid High School Principal Tammy Casey said after the program that Miller's visit was important because her students are exposed to many forms of media.

"There's so much out there that isn't authentic, and we just want to give them opportunities to recognize that everything they see or hear may not necessarily be 100% truthful," Casey said.


Information neighborhoods

To distinguish between journalism and other forms of information, Miller introduced students to five information neighborhoods and encouraged them to know their neighborhoods because, as her slide show stated, "It's easy to get lost."

- Journalism: The goal is to inform. The methods are verification, independence and accountability (look for a byline - the person who wrote the story).

- Entertainment: The goal is to amuse or engage people during their leisure time in activities in which they are passive participants. The methods include storytelling, performance, visual arts and music.

- Promotion: The goal is to sell goods, services and talent/personalities by increasing their appeal to others through paid advertising and public relations activities. The methods include press releases, public statements, staged events, sponsorships, product placement, websites, viral videos, etc.

- Propaganda: The goal is to build mass support for an ideology by canonizing its leaders or demonizing it opposition. The methods include one-sided accounts or outright lies, relying on emotional manipulation through images, appeals to majority values and fallacious reasoning.

- Raw information: The goal is to bypass institutional filters and distribution costs in order to sell, publicize, advocate, entertain and inform. Methods include Facebook, YouTube, blogs, Twitter, websites, website comment sites, chain email, text message forwarding, flyers and graffiti.

It may look like news, and it may sound like news, Miller stressed, but if verification, independence or accountability are lacking, people are not in the journalism neighborhood.


The Katrina cooler

Most of New Orleans was flooded after storm surge from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 breached levees surrounding the city, leading to many deaths. (Clarification: This sentence was clarified from the original version that read: "After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, much of the city was flooded, and many people were killed.")

The Louisiana Superdome acted as a shelter, and Miller said there was a rumor going around that a number of casualties were being stored in a cooler at the stadium. She told students that a reporter had visited the cooler and asked a guard some questions to verify the rumor.

"And the guard said, 'You don't want to go in there. It's too gruesome.'"

The reporter asked the guard if he had seen the bodies inside the cooler.

"And he said, 'No m'am, but I've heard about it and you can't unsee what you've already seen.'"

Miller said the reporter used that verification to report that the rumor was true and filed her story, which was distributed around the world. But the rumor wasn't true, even though the guard outside the cooler thought it was.

"So the bottom line is you don't go to the store and open up every box of Froot Loops to verify there are Froot Loops in there," Miller said. "But if there's a box already open, and somebody hands it to you, you probably want to check before you open it up and eat it."


More information

For more information about NYNPA's News Media Literacy program, contact Mary Miller by email at or by phone at 518-449-1667 x701.



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