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Seminar discusses role of news gatekeepers

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt New Ulm Library’s Programming & Technology Service Librarian LeRoy Harris discussing news and information access during the third seminar on evaluating the news.

NEW ULM — How people gather news and information, who is the gatekeeper of this information and what is censorship were the topics of The New Ulm Public Library’s third seminar on evaluating the news.

Earlier this month, New Ulm Library’s Programming & Technology Service Librarian LeRoy Harris started the series on evaluating the news to help people sift out the facts and to make informed decisions in the world of 24/7 news coverage.

Harris started the seminar by asking how people get information. Seventy years ago, it was libraries, newspapers and radios. Today, those sources are still available, but television and the internet are also available.

The next question was who or what does the information go through before it gets to the public? The people or institutes that control the pass-through of information are called “gatekeepers”. Gatekeepers are not necessarily good or bad. Over the years everything from Catholic Monks, dictatorships and librarians were considered gatekeepers.

Internet connections are also gatekeepers. The Internet providers are gatekeepers because customers need to pay the providers to have access to the internet.

Gatekeepers store information, such as in an archive. They also organize and preserve information. This leads to evaluating information. If storage space is limited or information is deemed unnecessary, a gatekeeper might choose not to preserve information.

Harris said gatekeepers will sometimes restrict information. This might be for legal reasons, ethical concerns, or political reasons.

Information destruction was also discussed. Nazi book burnings were an example. There is an example of the first Chinese Emperor who wanted to unify his country under one language. In this example, he had all writings in other languages destroyed.

This led to the topic of censorship. This is the restriction of access, including the destruction of information. Harris said censorship can start with the gatekeeper or outside groups and even individuals.

Censorship has become harder to do with time. The internet has made censorship harder because the information is more available. Once information is on the internet, it is usually there forever. Even deleted information can be recovered.

Harris said censorship is usually more targeted. “The Great Firewall” is a term used to describe the Chinese government’s efforts to restrict internet flow in and out of the country. Words, images, websites and companies are banned.

“It is the strongest amount of internet censorship in the world today,” Harris said.

Reporters can be censored as well. Harris showed a report from Reporters without Borders on world press freedom from 2021. The higher the rank, the more open and transparent and easy it is for reporters to publish. In the last year, Norway was ranked first for press freedom. The United States is ranked 44 out of 180.

Harris said even libraries can act as a censor. The New Ulm Library and other libraries, for example, have filters on computers preventing access to pornography.

In terms of books, the New Ulm Library does not restrict books based on age.

“As librarians, we don’t feel that is our job,” Harris said. “If a parent has an expectation for their child, then they need to talk to their child and discuss it with them.”

Harris discussed censorship in terms of Wikileaks. Through technology, Wikileaks has allowed people to share and publish government secrets. For this reason, governments are trying to censor it.

Social media has been the subject of censorship. As an example, Twitter was banned in Nigeria from June 5, 2021, to Jan. 13, 2022.

The top countries for internet censorship are China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Vietnam. The top countries with free access to the internet are Iceland, Estonia, Canada, Germany and the United States.

Harris said the internet makes it easier to share opinions and ideas, making it difficult to censor information, but gatekeepers are still able to control information through propaganda.

“If you can’t block access, convince people not to engage,” Harris said. This is a way of convincing people to self-censor by claiming a source is inaccurate.

Harris said this is done through logical fallacies and today it is commonly called “Fake News.”

He said using fallacies to discredit a source is nothing new. The false logic behind “fake news” claims is that a source of information is invalid because of who said it. Information is not valid or invalid because of the source.

In many of the fake news claims, a gatekeeper is trying to control access to information by establishing themselves as the only credible source. Trust their information, ignore the other information.

Harris discussed the 1890 Newspaper war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. As the two tried to increase readership they would sensationalize news and sway public opinion. The news story was designed to excite readers but was necessarily focused on facts. The method of sensationalizing articles was directly influential with the United States going to war with Spain in Cuba and the Philippines.

“The way people try to share information, even if it is fake information, has real-world consequences,” Harris said.

He acknowledged there is real fake news in the form of intentionally spread false news. Harris made a distinction between false news and satire. The difference between the two is intent. False news intends to stop people from thinking about a topic. With satire the idea is to make people think about a topic.

Harris ended the seminar by discussing fact-checkers. He said there are many fact-checking organizations. Examples of fact-checking websites are PolitiFacts, FactCheck.org, Washington Post Fact Checker and Snopes.com.

Fact-checkers provide third-party verification of information, but fact-checkers can also be flawed through bias. Fact-checkers are also another level of gatekeeping. One benefit of fact-checking is it gives people a chance to pause and think about the information presented.

Harris said fact-checkers are not perfect, but individual people can be their own fact-checkers.

“Check multiple sources, don’t believe it just because someone said you should trust it,” Harris said. Other tips he gave included looking for primary sources and finding additional independent sources to find additional perspectives.

Harris gave the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men can feel a different part of the elephant, but not the whole and they misidentify the animal.

“If you are given only one perspective, you are not seeing everything else,” Harris said. “Everyone has limited perspective and focus along with assumption and biases.”

The next Evaluating the News seminar will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, January 27.

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