New book by Amanda Sturgill offers ‘tools to fight fake news’

“Detecting Deception: Tools to Fight Fake News” was published this month by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Students in journalism classrooms across the country learn to check the facts that sources provide to them in their reporting — how to verify the dates, data and facts that newsmakers share.

Amanda Sturgill, associate professor of journalism, realized that that kind of fact-checking isn’t enough anymore. Everyone can publish, and communicators can skew or misrepresent the truth. Journalists and news consumers alike need to also know how to spot when someone’s statement is deceptive because it just doesn’t make sense.

“We teach fact-checking, but we don’t teach sense-checking,” Sturgill said.

Enter “Detecting Deception: Tools to Fight Fake News,” Sturgill’s book published this month, which seeks to equip readers to spot the broad range of ways newsmakers may mislead, distract or outright manipulate audiences. Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, the book is designed for both journalism students and members of the public who want to be better equipped to interpret an evolving media and information landscape. As Sturgill notes in the book’s preface, “whether you are creating a news package or sharing information on social media, determining what is true before sharing it is an ethical must.”

Sturgill groups these tools in three sections — reasoning issues that confuse the audience, ways communicators distract their audiences into forming opinions for bad reasons, and issues related to numbers and data.

Each section’s chapters have a similar structure — Sturgill offers a name and example for each issue that’s easy to remember. She explains the reasoning problem and then typically offers an example from history of how this problem played out. Each chapter closes with insights into how to counter the problem and then a “Your Turn” section that offers additional historical examples paired with discussion questions, with suggested answers in the back.

“I tried to make this as easy to use as possible,” Sturgill said.

Amanda Sturgill, associate professor of journalism

For instance, a chapter in the “Distractions and Deceptions” section is titled “The Hasty Generalization: ‘I Saw a Thing Once.’” A brief dialogue lays out an example of the “hasty generalization,” with someone jumping to the conclusion that “French people are so intolerant of tourists who don’t speak the language” just because they had one rude waiter in Paris. Sturgill’s historical example comes from a U.S. senator’s 2015 comments challenging the impact of climate change and rising temperatures by bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor, noting that it was very cold in Washington, D.C. that day.

Sturgill gives example from one reporter who effectively countered the “hasty generalization” by including the senator’s presentation, but distinguishing between local weather and changes in the climate in the reporting. In “Your Turn,” readers  can consider details from a 2000 presidential debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore as well as from campaign speeches delivered by Ronald Reagan during his 1976 presidential run.

Beyond the book, Sturgill is using her “Sturg says” blog to offer additional examples that are playing out in real time on a page called “Spot the Deception.” A recent entry tackles the issue of “the false analogy,” illustrated with arguments about voting in person vs. shopping.

“This is a perfect time to think about some of these problems,” Sturgill notes, with the continued expansion of information sources online, disinformation efforts on social media and a presidential election underway.

The book has generated positive reviews so far. Michael Ray Smith, author of “Fake News, Truth-Telling and Charles M. Sheldon’s Model of Accuracy,” notes in his review that “Sturgill goes farther to give her audience strategies to identify and combat weak arguments.”

“Detecting Deception” is available in hardback, paperback and as an eBook from the publisher, Amazon and other booksellers.