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Let’s Apply Critical Thinking to the Fake News Emanating From the Measure S Campaign

By Kerry Morrison

February 21, 2017

I am hopeful that LA City voters can distinguish between hype and logic. The very future of our city is dependent upon voter discernment.

Recent events in American civic life have sparked new scrutiny into how people in our democracy stay informed. Almost daily, we hear accusations from our president that major media outlets are guilty of pushing out “fake news.” If we, according to him, cannot trust the Washington Post or the New York Times, then we certainly cannot exercise responsible citizenship relying upon a 140 character tweet or a Facebook post. So, what do we do?

Now, more than ever, Americans are called to think critically about the information with which they are bombarded. A Chinese proverb suggests this: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

Let’s take a look at a very local case study. We are called to put on our Critical Thinking hats here in our city where there are billboards all over town that present the very enticing sound-bite: Vote Yes on S:  Save our Neighborhoods. Well, who can argue with saving our neighborhoods?

But this is where the questions must start. We can learn from what educators are doing to help students discern between real information versus sponsored information. Research recently conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Education queried whether students  from 12 states could distinguish between advertisements, sponsored news and real journalism on the web. It struck me that adults would benefit from the curriculum being developed to help children in their critical analysis of information and news.

I cannot tell you how many people from my neighborhood have suggested they are voting for Measure S because they have bought into the claims that are showing up in their mail on almost a daily basis. Let’s take a deep breath and think. I have a handy curriculum guide from The News Literacy Project (NLP) to debunk the fake news promulgated by this campaign.

For the purposes of this blog, I am going to apply questions from NLP’s Ten Questions for Fake News Detection. 

Question 1.  Emotions?  Are you hoping that the information turns out to be true?

Response:  A beautiful 12-page booklet mailed earlier this month from the Coalition to Preserve LA  evokes an emotional response with the title “Measure S is the Solution for L.A.’s Future.” Omigosh. Wouldn’t it be great…finally…to have THE solution?

Let’s overlay that broad promise with some truth checks.  If Measure S is THE solution for L.A.’s future, then why would a cast of hundreds of community leaders and organizations be standing shoulder to shoulder to should to oppose THE solution? (Hint, perhaps because it is not the solution….?)

Why would trusted organizations such as the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and Bet Tzedek and the Valley Industry & Commerce Association oppose the solution for L.A.’s future? And why would the Los Angeles Times title their endorsement of the No campaign with a rebuttal to the solution: “Measure S isn’t a solution to L.A.’s housing woes, it’s a childish middle finger to City Hall. Vote no.”?

Question 3. Consider the headline or main message. Does it use excessive punctuation or ALL CAPS for emphasis? 

Everything about the Measure S campaign is in ALL CAPS. Their mailers come screaming in your mail box saying “MORE LIES.” “CITY HALL IS BROKEN!” “WE GET MORE TRAFFIC. THE DEVELOPERS WIN. TELL CITY HALL ENOUGH!”

Enough. My hands are over my ears. What children are being taught now is how to discern responsible news dissemination versus hype. It is important to move past the headlines and drill down further.

I am hoping that our discerning LA voters are recognizing the signs of hyperbole evident in this campaign.

Question 9. Can you confirm, using a reverse image search, that any images in your example, are authentic?

On that slick, expensive 24-page booklet mentioned above, there is a bucolic residential street scene. That must be the neighborhood that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (AKA Measure S) is trying to protect. Authentic? Consider the fact that the image on the front of this slick campaign piece features a photo of a Beverly Hills residential street.  You can purchase this as a stock image for $33 from Getty Images.  

Kerry Morrison is executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance.  She serves on the United Way/LA Area Chamber Home For Good Task Force and blogs at @KerryHMorrison

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