Editor-in-Chief Victoria Vidales interviews Professor Nolan Higdon about his new book The Anatomy of Fake News. Dr. Higdon describes the growth of fake news, the causes of its continuation, and how students can take control of their own news sources in order to remain informed news viewers.
By Victoria Vidales
Dr. Nolan Higdon’s book, The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education, analyzes the development of the fake news phenomenon in American media. Dr. Higdon hopes that young people will read his work, and use the arguments, and tools provided to become more critical, and educated news viewers, deciding where the credible news sources come from themselves. Dr. Higdon explains in depth how much of journalism has deteriorated, losing the high credibility earned in the 1970s with the influences of multinational corporations. Dr. Higdon argues against censorship as a solution, instead arguing that education, and continued research are the tools necessary to combat false information.
“I wrote this book to really paint the picture for people that if we are really going to address fake news this is how to do it comprehensively” Dr. Higdon stated.
During the race for the 2016 presidential election the term “fake news” became one of Donald Trump’s main calling cards. This development can create the illusion that the concept of fake news is one that Trump has created himself in an effort to gain supporters, and turn them away from the press’ critiques of him. While effective, Dr. Higdon argues that the origins of fake news began far earlier than Trump’s first presidential race, and instead originates in the 1980s, a time long before Trump entered politics.
Following the high in credibility that most journalists earned following the coverage of the Vietnam War, and Watergate scandal many newspaper, and media groups fell under the ownership of multinational corporations, who had their own interests to protect from news coverage. Dr. Higdon claims that these corporations looked at journalism “as a business” and made decisions in order to limit on the ground journalism.
Very few corporations led to heightened competition, and journalism became more focused on maintaining viewership, then covering real news stories. Dr. Higdon argues that corporations saw that stories regarding inner conflict received the most interest, and therefore chose to cover them more frequently, specifically, stories about political divisions. These decisions regarding coverage leave several topics that could be more pertaining to the American people out of their news outlets.
Dr. Higdon claims that as a result of this coverage, “[The American people] get a very limited scope on what’s going on in [the] world, and even the scope [they] get is highly distorted.”
Journalism also suffered from significant deregulation in the 1980s that Dr. Higdon argues also contributed to the decline of credibility, specifically, removing the Fairness Doctrine, which required journalists to have counterviews in their work, and the removal of the Communications Act, which limited the amount of news organizations. Following failed coverage of several economic challenges, particularly, the Recession of 2008, and the growth of political journalists, Dr. Higdon believes that all of these factors created a level of long building distrust between the American people, and the American media.
While a strong advocate against fake news, Dr. Higdon is also extremely opposed to censorship as a solution, citing the involvement of censorship by the government in American history to stop groups advocating for civil rights, and social change. Seeing a slippery slope, Dr. Higdon believes that “when you impower an institution to censor it usually goes farther than the intended target.” Seeing the support from younger generations, particularly Left leaning young people, Dr. Higdon hopes that they will realize how censorship has been used as a weapon throughout American history against various groups.
Dr. Higdon believes that the solution to fake news is through education, for people to look at news sources critically, challenge themselves to read and listen to a broad range of news outlets in order to decipher the truth. In Chapter 6 “Fighting Fake News: Solutions and Discontents” and Chapter 7 “The Fake News Detection Kit: The Ten Point Process to Save Our Democracy” Dr. Higdon outlines his approach to solving the fake news dilemma, and how using these solutions can help repair the Democracy in the U.S.
For himself, Dr. Higdon chooses to get a broad range of news sources in order to determine which stories are credible, and are providing their readers with the truth. Dr. Higdon frequently reads both corporate and independent press sources, foreign and domestic, and progressive and conservative, staying away from a solely one sided news sources. Dr. Higdon claims that in regards to knowing which specific journalists to listen to he, “makes a list of who has done journalism well consistently over time even when they are going against the status quo.”
Dr. Higdon claims that “If you really care about Democracy you have to care about journalism.” He claims that people should remove political commentators from their sources for factual news, claiming that they are part of the problem in fake news, not the solution. He recognizes that although fake news may never be completely gone, with research and study people can become more aware of detecting fake news, and keeping themselves informed of the real news.
In regards to higher education’s role in fake news Dr. Higdon believes that schools can have a role in educating students on how to detect fake news. Dr. Higdon claims that schools should be teaching “non journalism students what journalism is, and explaining to students what journalists do. Without this knowledge, students cannot be expected to recognize fake news.”
Dr. Higdon also provided advice to aspiring journalists, claiming that they should not be discouraged to follow a career into journalism, but instead have the power to change the actions of the media in a positive way. Dr. Higdon advises that young journalists should “try [their] best to build a career without compromising [their] principles’ and hopes that ‘one day that we live in a world with enough young journalists who are using these tools to grow as a whole to take attention away from these current corporations.”
The American people have the ability to decide which news sources to read, and view. Dr. Higdon hopes that people will use the skills outlined in his book in order to educate themselves on how to become a critical viewer of the media.
Special thanks to Professor Nolan Higdon for this exclusive interview. His book The Anatomy of Fake News is available through the University of California Press.
Professor Nolan Higdon is a Communications professor for Saint Mary’s College of California and California State East Bay.
Victoria Vidales '21,