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Iowa's campuses become focal points for debates on political expression, fake news

"I think we all need to be critical consumers - even of what we say in the classroom"

    A student casts a long shadow as she walks between the University of Iowa Library and the Adler Journalism Building in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
    Higher Education
    Feb 13, 2018 at 3:16 pm

    On the same day in January that state Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, proposed legislation to abolish tenure on Iowa’s public university and community college campuses, a new University of Iowa hire reached out to her would-be employer with a question.

    “She sent me a note within a few hours of that legislation coming out and she said, ‘What does this mean for my tenure-track faculty offer?’ ” recalled Christopher Morphew, a professor in the UI College of Education. “She was legitimately concerned.”

    That faculty member, Katharine Broton — currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin — received assurances from her would-be colleagues that such ideas did not have broad support in this state. And she stuck with her decision to accept the position at Iowa.

    She’s scheduled to start as an assistant professor of higher education in the UI Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies in the fall. It will be her first tenure-track post.

    But — coming from a state that one year ago passed new rules making it easier for tenured professors to lose their jobs — Broton said she was alarmed at the possibility Iowa could be headed in the same direction.

    “When I heard the news, honestly my heart just sank,” she said. “I felt like I had been punched in the gut.”

    Broton wasn’t alone.

    “I’ve heard from other faculty who are recruiting new faculty to the university,” Morphew said. “They get asked questions. ‘Is tenure going away at the University of Iowa? What does this mean for me? What does this mean for my ability to conduct my research?’

    “There are people concerned about that,” he said. “Absolutely.”

    The shot at tenure in Iowa — decried on the national level by the American Association of University Professors — doesn’t just concern campus recruits. It’s touched a nerve with current faculty and administrators across the state’s public universities and highlighted what some have flagged as a broader attack on the First Amendment that would affect U.S. communities, both on and off academic campuses.

    “The core value of academic freedom — and the core purpose of tenure in supporting and safeguarding it — is the free exploration and expression of ideas, which are essential to the discovery of knowledge and truth,” UI President Bruce Harreld wrote in a message to faculty in January — after the tenure-blocking bill emerged. “In our teaching, our research, and our creative expression, we must be able to investigate and debate information and viewpoints freely, whether they are controversial or not.”

    Zaun’s proposal was intended, he said, to give universities and the Board of Regents more freedom to terminate professors who they believe are doing a poor job.

    But even after the outcry over the tenure proposal, lawmakers continued to pitch legislation some viewed as threatening those “core values.” Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, proposed a bill to require political-party balance among faculty, to achieve greater political diversity. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, as part of his “Suck it Up, Buttercup” bill slamming campuses for offering postelection counseling, pitched the idea of penalizing faculty for off-campus and off-hours organization or participation in political rallies — particularly those that become disruptive.

    Although none of those bills survived the first legislative “funnel” in the Statehouse in their original form, the ideas they espoused persist locally and nationally — and continue to haunt, to a degree, the campuses. Some faculty are more cautious with their comments in class. Some students are less willing to voice their views.

    For UI political science professor Caroline Tolbert, who teaches an “Introduction to Social Media and Politics” course, the current First Amendment-related events nationally and locally even have shaped her classroom curriculum — forcing her, for example, to navigate a somewhat novel debate about facts, “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

    She’s found herself sifting through an ocean of material labeled as such by varying groups and individuals — even at the highest level of the federal government.

    “We think of teaching as something where you get the advantage of history behind you to help you,” Tolbert said. “But I feel like this in unfolding before our eyes.”

    Classroom buzz

    Fortunately, Tolbert said, she feels united with her students in the lately ceaseless enterprise of deciphering fact from fiction in a media-absorbed world where much social interaction happens online.

    “We are, together, a team trying to deal with these problems in the classroom,” she said.


    The notion of fake news has reshaped the curriculum in Tolbert’s class dedicated to studying political manipulation of the media.

    Fake news, when the term first started to pop up in political and media discourse late in the last presidential campaign, referred to fabricated news items — stories that in part or in their entirety were based on made-up information — for political advantage or to lure viewers on the internet for advertising revenue.

    “We’ve been discussing this a lot,” Tolbert said. “We’ve been trying to talk about how do you deal with it? We’ve found articles on the left and the right that are fake news. We’ve been talking about strategies.”

    The students want answers both for themselves and the broader community, according to Tolbert.

    “I think they will admit to you that they are worried about consuming fake news,” she said. “This is what we rely on and consume on a daily basis.”


    UI journalism professor Daniel Lathrop recently directed the focus of one of his classes on the issue of fake news and its interplay with free speech values by charging students to develop ideas to combat false reporting.

    The idea originated with an actual call from the not-for-profit Knight Foundation offering up to $25,000 in matching seed funding for product ideas to counter fake news. On a Wednesday in March in the UI Adler Journalism and Mass Communications Building, teams of two and three students made their pitches “Shark Tank”-style to a panel of UI experts.

    The students came up with smartphone applications programmed to use artificial intelligence to highlight portions of articles that are fake or to flag entire stories that could be false. They proposed crowd-sourcing-style endeavors to rate or grade reporters, stories or news organizations based on accuracy.

    One group pitched a system that would redirect readers to more reputable websites, and many suggested marketing the products to companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google — even as those companies scramble to develop algorithms to curtail the prevalence of fake news.

    “It’s definitely a big problem,” UI senior Taylen Anderson said during his presentation to the class. “Fake news has corrupted a lot of mainstream media. And it’s really hard to tell right now, especially in the age of technology that we’re in, what is fake news. A lot of sites that are fake news look real, and a lot of people are duped.”

    But questions the “sharks” kept asking hammered home the challenge of defining fake news, suppressing free speech, and reaching those who might consume fake news but have no interest in changing their reading habits or political views.

    “The concern to me is when we have the powers-that-be discredit the news, and then people feel free to believe whatever they want to believe,” said Bob Walker, a lecturer in the UI Tippie College of Business who was acting as one of the “sharks” for Lathrop’s class.

    At a time when fact blurs with fiction and free speech and thought are under fire on university campuses, Walker warned students.

    “I think we all need to be critical consumers — even of what we say in the classroom,” he said. “You guys need to question us. How much of it is B.S.?”

    ‘It’s done a world of good’

    Despite the external pressures, Lathrop said, he doesn’t believe the political landscape dramatically has altered his instruction.

    “There is a grain of truth about the media not taking pains to fact-check quotes, to make sure their stories are accurate and to deliver that in an unbiased way to the public. I think what President Trump has inadvertently done is remind journalists and remind schools of journalism about the fundamentals that we have let slip.”

    - Iowa State University Professor Michael Bugeja



    As a former reporter for the likes of The Dallas Morning News, Lathrop said, he’s long lived according to basic journalistic principles — including balance, accuracy and skepticism. That’s helped him and his colleagues navigate a politically tense and fraught time.

    “We’ve always put a premium on being respectful of our students’ political views and also pushing them to think those views through and to learn and to think about how to do journalism in a way that’s not politically biased,” he said.

    But one thing Lathrop has seen change in the UI journalism school is the level of interest.

    “This semester, I have more students in my classes who are expressing an interest in being journalists rather than being in, for example, (public relations),” he said.

    A new “principles of journalism” class expected to attract 30 to 50 students enrolled the maximum 70 students both in its first semester in the fall and this spring.

    “There certainly is an interest level that is higher than we thought it would be,” Lathrop noted, perhaps crediting that to the recent political pressures on the First Amendment. “That certainly raises people’s interest in the importance of what journalists can do to hold powerful people accountable, no matter who those powerful people are, or what their political points of view are.”

    Iowa State University Professor Michael Bugeja, director of the institution’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communications, said he, too, has seen some benefit in his program — and for the First Amendment on the whole — from the recent politically charged debate.

    “I think it’s done a world of good for journalism,” Bugeja said. “There is a grain of truth about the media not taking pains to fact-check quotes, to make sure their stories are accurate and to deliver that in an unbiased way to the public. I think what President Trump has inadvertently done is remind journalists and remind schools of journalism about the fundamentals that we have let slip.”

    Current events also have motivated Bugeja to make a stronger push for a new requirement that university students take a “media and technology literacy” general-education course.

    “If we’re going to have a literate society in Iowa, we had better start teaching incoming students where to find facts, how to discern between fake news and real news, to understand the influence and impact of technology on their lives,” he said. “These things are of vital importance if we’re ever to restore the audience.”

    ‘Really disconnected’

    A media- and technology-literacy course not only would educate student consumers on the importance of checking their news source, Bugeja said, it would provide context on basic journalistic principles — something faculty members across the campuses are considering in light of recent political discourse.

    “I think the most interesting thing that’s happened is the fact that people are reflecting on this issue at all,” said David Ryfe, who directs the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communications but said he was speaking only for himself and not the entire department.

    “In the past — and I’ve been doing this for 20 years — I don’t think I ever thought about what I said either in class or in any other venue on campus and its implications for some larger political debate,” he said. “But these issues have become so politicized, particularly on college campuses, that everyone is more aware of them now and I wonder how others are going to respond to what I’m saying much more.”

    Ryfe teaches a First Amendment class and noted a transition he’s seen in recent years in his role as Devil’s Advocate. Previously, he said, students more often were First Amendment “absolutists.”

    “You can’t restrict speech, period,” he said. “Today, that’s completely reversed. This generation they’re much more likely to allow government to do lots of different things, including regulate speech.”

    Nowadays, Ryfe said, he more often has to make the argument for why people would not want this type of government interference. But, he said, that debate wades into political territory — a precarious space on public university campuses being targeted by specific lawmakers.

    “The fact that Donald Trump won the presidency really sharpened the sense that there’s really this political turmoil,” Ryfe said. “And faulty are more or less reluctant to get overwhelmed by it.”

    Universities for years have been a talking point in the Republican Party, and the recent power shift exemplifies that, he said. Thus, Ryfe said, some of the proposed legislation is meant less to enact real change than to make a political statement.

    “They can use universities as a way to mobilize certain elements of their constituency,” he said. “They’ve learned that it helps their careers to do this.”

    A “more substantive reaction,” Ryfe said, is a commentary on “how detached these people have become from these institutions — the university in one instance and journalism in another.

    “The idea that university professors are simply espousing their own political views in their classes, or that journalists are simply making stuff up, that indicates that they have very little understanding of what actually happens in those institutions — like how the news is made or how classes are conducted,” he said.

    “If they literally believe that these sorts of things are happening on campus, then they’re just really disconnected from these institutions. And that’s not a good thing for either side.”

    Comments (319) 339-3158;

    This story appears in the second edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Order a free copy here.

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