Montana Public Radio

Parsing The Press: Recognizing And Combatting BS

Apr 29, 2021

We all think we know BS when we see it, but do we? University of Montana journalism professor Lee Banville is teaching a course on how to recognize and combat BS, something he'll talk about as this week's guest.

Listen now on Parsing the Press with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk The New York Post ran a recent story that a book written by Vice President Kamala Harris was being handed out to migrant children as part of a welcome kit. The story was not true, but that correction didn't come out before it had gone viral. And that's just one example of many of how bad information is spread in today's media environment.

Lee Banville is a journalism professor at the University of Montana and this fall, he's teaching a course titled "Calling BS," which aims to teach students how to recognize BS in the news.

Lee is our guest today, and Lee, tell us why you saw a need for this course and what you hope it accomplishes.

Lee Banville I think one of the things that I think we've all experienced is that all of us, regardless of whether we're talking about Facebook or Twitter — or frankly, our staff meetings or at a cocktail party — have to put up with people who are spreading misinformation, or as we call it in the class, BS.

And so part of what this class is about is about becoming a better sort of "critiquer" of BS, a better understander of what's behind it, what its goals are. It's not just fact checking.

I mean, this is one of those courses that's not inherently built to teach journalists how to do journalism. I mean, both you [Sally] and Gwen have certainly taught courses like the U[niversity]. This is a course intended for everybody, to be better consumers of information, and  because we all share information, better producers and sharers of information.

And, I mean, you mentioned The New York Post; There is no shortage of examples of the spreading of BS, and how much harder it is to counter BS than it is to produce it.

Mauk Give us some tips of how you recognize BS.

Banville It's interesting, because a lot of people, you start this conversation and they almost inherently have in their head what I think is part of the problem — which is that if only people out there had access to good information and had an open heart and an open mind, they would all come to agree with what I think right now.

And part of the challenge is to kind of teach sort of intellectual humility, that you don't know the answer to all the questions right now. Your perspective is one perspective of many.

And so part of what this class is to do is to really kind of, you know, check our own sort of inherent — "arrogance" is a very strong word but it comes close to it sometimes, because oftentimes when we talk about misinformation and we talk about BS, it's everybody but us and it's everybody who doesn't agree with me. And it's a lot more complicated than that, that we need to kind of teach people to be aware of.

Gwen Florio Lee, calling BS often involves standing up to powerful people, which can be really tough for young journalists. How do you help them develop the backbone necessary to do that?

Banville So part of it is to base your sort of "calling BS" not on what you think, but what you know. So before you go in to an interview, before you — or if you're consuming information, you know, whether you're a journalist or not a journalist — when you are confronted with things that are stated to be facts, or opinions that are based on facts, that you have to go check, right?

And the more you can do that ahead of an interview as a journalist, the better off you'll be. One of the reasons why we're doing this course is, you know, journalists are probably one of the top targets of BS out there. Because if someone on one side or the other of a debate can convince us to repeat their BS, we are amplifying that message and sending it out to a far broader audience than them just doing it on Twitter.

And so we need to be particularly vigilant to ensure that we are contextualizing the significance of the issue, kind of, you know, being able to sort of dive into the specifics of the solution that's being proposed so that we don't allow the source to drive the entire conversation.

I mean, it's actually easier, I find, with journalists to get them to do that to people who they think are wrong. I think it's much harder to get them to do it to people who they think are right, but might also be wrong or might also be peddling BS. And so that's kind of what the challenge is for journalists.

And then for news consumers, it's to get them — before they hit share or like or click on that link — to do, you know, a minute and a half of homework to ensure that they're not being propagators of BS but rather a fact-check on it.

Mauk Lee, when journalists do this, and they call someone out and say, "You know, what you're saying is just not factually true. Here are the facts," and then the news consumer calls the journalists biased for holding the other person accountable. How are journalists to combat that when you're basically doing your job well?

Banville You can't. This is your answer. I mean, all you can do is offer a factual critique of what is being said. But where I get antsy is, you know, I'm old enough and I'm gray-haired enough to say that, like, it used to be very hard for a journalist to call someone a liar because we didn't do it.

We would point out things that were lies, but we didn't describe the person as a liar, right? And it's interesting, because now that's not that hard to do, because partially that is a strategy being used by some in the, sort of, you know, news system to try and influence opinion and rally support.

Where I find it's troubling is when you don't do the second part of what you said, Sally, which is like you don't do the "... and here are the facts."

And so a good example — I mean, it's been trod over a million times — is, you know, President Trump talking about the election results. And, you know, whether you're talking about it at The New York Times or at NPR or fill in the blank for mass media news organization, most of the people would say that these were lies or they were misleading or distortions — but they wouldn't actually say what the facts were behind it, that he said, you know, 'X number of thousands of votes were blah in Michigan' or whatever.

It was very much a 'He is a liar,' or 'He's propagating misinformation.' And I think you got to do both, because you have to both call them out on it and then back it up with facts.

I mean, back to that thing I said earlier, which is it's way harder to combat BS than produce it, because you can't just say, 'Well, that's BS.' You actually have to counter it, which is so much more exhausting than producing it, but is incredibly important. Because if you are someone who agrees with that person on political issues, you can't, you know, just declaring them a liar doesn't help, doesn't give them any seeds of doubt that they can start to correct their opinion on.

They are simply left with a choice of, do I believe the media or do I believe the person I voted for? And that is a proposition that really hasn't worked out well, frankly, for either side so far.

Florio Lee, even when someone has done the research, gathered the facts and put them out there — including facts that counter a false narrative — that reporter can still be hit with a fake news accusation. How do you help your students deal with that reality?

Banville So I'm trying to combat this actually almost from the other side, from the sort of consumer side, because if you do everything that you just described Gwen, you shouldn't have to just say, like, 'But I'm just trying to find out the truth. I'm just trying to convey information and educate you on this issue. I'm not trying to participate in the political debate.'

But that is contingent on the way the person consumes it, not the way that you produce it. It is true that we have to live up to the highest standards, we have to do all the hard work, we have to go to all these meetings and dig through all this data. But at the end of the day, we also have to teach people to be better gatekeepers of their own information.

Because the days in which, you know, I mean, people talk about it like it was great, but it was like the days in which, you know, middle-aged white guys told everyone what to think about the day's events is over.

And so that has both benefits, in the sense that it's not so narrow a worldview that we're getting through our various media, but it's also got a massive downside, which is it's up to each individual consumer to be better consumers.

Mauk Well, we've enjoyed talking with the middle-aged white guy.

Banville I know. Nothing like a mansplainer explaining mansplaining to people, that's great.

Mauk Lee and Gwen, we're out of time. Thank you both so much.

Florio Thanks, Lee. Thanks, Sally.

Banville Thanks for having me.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.