Media literacy in the age of fake news

JRN 492-4 | Dr. Mourão | T - Th 2:20  239 Communication Arts Bldg


Media literacy in the age of fake news

JRN 492-4 | Dr. Mourão | T - Th 2:20  239 Communication Arts Bldg


Mainstream journalists no longer have the monopoly on journalistic acts. News consumption is confounded by a mix of information, misinformation, hoaxes, propaganda, rumors, humor and opinion disguised as credible journalism. This course is designed to help you navigate this information overload and develop the critical skills necessary to identify, defuse and debunk false or misleading information.

The goal of this class is to make you better informed consumers of news and more suspicious readers. You will be exposed to the complexities behind news making processes and how information can be manipulated in the different types of “fake news” (clickbaits, dishonest framing, bias, propaganda, sensationalism, satire, etc.)

By the end of this course, you will be empowered to make informed decisions when encountering information online and take control over the flow of information in your news feeds.

Course objectives:

  1. Understand the need for critical news consumption
  2. Become familiar with the history of misinformation in American politics
  3. Analyze competing perspectives regarding mainstream and partisan media bias
  4. Understand the role of online platforms on the creation, dissemination and consumption of misinformation and hyperpartisan information
  5. Recognize the ways in which information can be manipulated: clickbait, native advertising, bias, propaganda, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and entertainment
  6. Understand the motivations behind different types of “fake news” and hyperpartisan stories
  7. Learn to effectively verify and debunk misinformation
  8. Cultivate a healthy and diverse media diet

This class has no textbooks, weekly readings are posted on the class schedule (below).

Office hours: T 2:30-4:30 pm, Wed 11:00-1 pm at Room 340




Readings and planner

The academic planner and weekly readings for this course can be found here:

Here's the road map for this class.

Academic integrity

Your work must be your own. It must be original or properly attributed. Work that is fabricate or plagiarized will receive a zero and will result in an Academic Dishonesty Report about this with the Dean’s Office. I may check assignments by using TurnItIn software. You can review the School of Journalism’s Code of Ethics at .


Hands-on exercises: 20%

Midterm exam: 20%

Online ethnography: 30%

Final exam: 20%

Participation: 10%


Assignments are graded in a 100% scale:

4.0 (93%+)  3.5 (87-92%) 3.0 (80-86%) 2.5 (77-79%)  2.0 (70-76%) 1.5 (67-69%) 1.0 (60-66%)  0 (below 60%)

About me

I’m Dr. Rachel Mourao (/mowrau/, or M., but don’t sweat about it!) and I came to MSU after completing my PhD in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. I’m a former digital journalist and my research focuses on the impact of technology on news production during political events. I currently have a research group focusing on fake news and election coverage that meets on Wednesdays, 1 pm at room 341. You are welcome to join us!

You can reach me by email at and follow me on Twitter at: @rachelmourao.



Hands-on exercises (20%)

We will have a series of hands-on exercises that will add up to 20% of your grade:

1)       Documentary response (5%): Students are required to use the class time to watch the documentary: A new definition for what’s news: (Part 1) and answer the questions below.

Movie response questions: due before class on 09/14. Turn in responses via Google Drive. No more than 3 pages, double-spaces, font 12 pt.

2)      BS inventory (10%): the BS inventory (adapted from Bergstrom and West)

The purpose of this assignment is to take a "BS inventory" of all of the BS you encounter of the course of one week. The idea is to make note of each bit of BS that see or hear, and to record some information about it. While the assignment is open-ended and we want you to be creative, you might consider keeping track of: BS that you are exposed to, BS that you produce yourself, and BS that you debunk or try to debunk.

3)      Other combined exercises (5%)


Online ethnography (30%)

In this assignment, adapted from Dr. Serena Carpenter's class, you will be randomly assigned two websites to monitor over the course of four weeks starting October 10. Each week, you will post a diary of what happened in those sites (less than one page) on Google Drive. On November 16, you will turn in a 3-page paper with key findings.

Two components: 

- Weekly observations (10%): Notes should be posted on Google Document

- Final report (20%): 3 pages


Midterm (20%)

On October 19, you will take an in-class multiple choice midterm exam. The midterm is closed book.


Final (20%)

On December 14, you will take a final open-book exam.


Participation (10%)

I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another. The most important acts constituting self-consciousness are determined by a relationship toward another consciousness.

— Mikhail Bakhtin, Theory of Socialization


In this class, in-person participation is more important than your papers and exams (10% participation + 20% hands-on exercises). The class is based on active and reflective discussions and I am committed to what you bring to this course. I expect you to come on time and participate fully. The classroom is a sacred space, so I ask you not to disrupt class with cell phones, social media browsing or side conversations.

Some ground rules: absences will be calculated via the attendance tool in D2L and graded accordingly. Two late arrivals or early departures equal one absence. Three unexcused absences may lower your course grade by 0.5. Four unexcused absences lower your grade by 1.0. Five unexcused absences may result in course failure. Absences are excused with a doctor’s note or bereavement. Exercises missed for unexcused absences cannot be made up. Michigan State’s grief absence policy and an absence request form are here.

Each class will be divided into three segments: First, I will shortly introduce the topics and key arguments of our readings (~20 minutes). Second, we will discuss the readings as a group. Third, we will conduct the in-class exercise for that week when appropriate.

I value the diversity that each person brings to MSU. If your religious holidays require new arrangements for classes or homework, please tell me in advance. If you have a Verified Individual Services Accommodation form, you are welcome to share that with me at least two weeks before the date of the test or project that concerns you. If there is anything I can do to teach better, please tell me.


This syllabus is subject to change and you will be notified about any modifications in advance.

Class schedule

Class schedule

The readings below are hyperlinked. Last updated: 08/28/2017

Week 1: Here’s the plan

08/31: Hello


Course overview

In class videos:

Fake news: CBS story  

Trump invokes 'fake news' at press conference

Hannity Fox News Today August 29, 2017 (Minutes 2:10-7:11)


Week 2: Why should we care?

09/05 – why now?


Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Americans' Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low

What’s Trump’s think tank? Try internet message boards

09/07 –  the age of centrifugal diversification


Journalism: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

When important investigative reporting must compete with Brangelina

John Oliver isn’t responsible for saving journalism

Class slides

Week 3:  What is news?

09/12: NO CLASS

Documentary response: Students are required to use the class time to watch the documentary: A new definition for what’s news: (Part 1) and answer the questions below.

Movie response questions: due before class on 09/14. Turn in responses via Google Drive. No more than 3 pages, double-spaces, font 12 pt.

I will be in the U.K. attending a research conference called Journalism in the Post-Truth Age. More information here.


09/14: News in the 21st century (Guest instructor)

Professor Troy Hale will lead the discussion

Exercise #1: Answer the four questions about the documentary by Thursday morning, on Google Drive. 


Week 4: Are journalists biased?

09/19: cultural hegemony and ideological biases


The ruling class and the ruling ideas

Here’s what non-fake news looks like

A Field Guide to Harvard’s Field Guide on ‘Fake News’

Hegemony: 10-min philosophy video

09/21: structural biases - News sources and balance


Comments by Jemele Hill of ESPN a ‘Fireable Offense,’ White House Says

False equivalence: how 'balance' makes the media dangerously dumb

When Sources Lie: Why You Can’t Rely on Confidence or Consistency

Hostile media effect (Introduction only)


Week 5:  Social media and misinformation

09/26: SM and BS


On Bullshit

How does misinformation spread online?

In class activity:

Exercise #2: How much BS I encountered this week?

09/28: Algorithms and big data


Facebook is eating the world

Social Media Did Not Give Us Donald Trump and it is Not Weakening Democracy – Daniel Kreiss (Medium, 2016)

Facebook Mounts Effort to Limit Tide of Fake News - The New York Times

Google and Facebook can’t just make fake news disappear


Week 6: The pope shocks the world - an introduction to “fake news”

10/03: Defining “fake news”


As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth – Sabrina Tavernise (The New York Times, 2016)

How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study – Sapna Mahehshwari (The New York Times, 2016) 

Don’t fret about fake political news – Jack Shafer (Politico, 2016) 

10/05:  A brief history of fake news


The Age of Post-Truth Politics – William Davis (The New York Times, 2016)

The Long and Brutal History of Fake News


Exercise #2 (BS inventory) due before class


Week 7: Types of fake news

10/10: Towards a fake news typology


Fake news. It’s complicated.

My ‘fake news list’ went viral. But made-up stories are only part of the problem:


Determining sites for online ethnography

Exercise #3: In-class - We classify our websites

10/12: Clickbaits and native advertising


Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’ – Andrew Higgins, Mike McIntire and Gabriel Dance (The New York Times, 2016)

Native Advertising: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

BuzzFeed’s Future Depends On Convincing Us Ads Aren’t Ads

In-class activity:

Exercise #3: In-class - We classify our websites


Week 8: Middle of the road

10/17: Midterm review

10/19: Midterm exam, class evaluations, ethnography papers and other housecleaning

Important date: Ethnography diary #1 due Sunday night


Week 9: Bias and partisanship

10/26: Biases


Understanding bias

Test your implicit bias with science

In class activity:

We take a IAT

10/24: ...And what we do about them


Fake news is not the only problem

TED video – Beware of online filter bubbles

Important date: Ethnography diary #2 due Sunday night


Week 10: Partisan media ecosystems

10/31: Media ecosystems

Inside The Partisan Fight For Your News Feed

11/02: Liberals and conservatives


a.       The rise of left-wing, anti-Trump fake news

b.       How the left lost its mind


a.       Yochai Benkler: The Right-Wing Media Ecosystem

b.       Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda

Important date: Ethnography diary #3 due Sunday night


Week 11: Hoaxes, conspiracy theory and entertainment

11/07: Conspiracies enter mainstream


Alex Jones and Infowars


11/09: Fake news as satirical content


Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs? "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Examined (first page only)

Is John Oliver's Show Journalism? He Says The Answer Is Simple: 'No'

Unfortunately, John Oliver, You Are a Journalist  

In class exercise: we make fake news!

Important date: Ethnography diary #4 due Sunday night


Week 12:  Fact-checking and verification

11/14: How to spot fake news?


How to spot fake news

How To Detect Fake News With These Tools and Techniques

Use this list to find out if you are looking at a Fake Story

Who is this man who seems to die in every terrorist attack?

11/16: Verification


Verification handbook

13 tools to verify photos

Misleading statistics

Important date: Online ethnography paper due on Google Drive by midnight on Sunday


Week 13: Verification Cont. and thanksgiving

11/21: Verification in-class exercise

11/23: Thanksgiving break


Week 14: Debunking misinformation

11/28: Part 1


Debunking handbook - Part 1

11/30: Part 2


Debunking handbook - Part 2

In class: Debunking exercise


Week 15: We look back!


When good intentions backfire

Final review


Final Exam: Thursday, Dec 14 2017 12:45pm - 2:45pm 

Some credits

Some credits

Some of the ideas, exercises and lectures in this class were inspired by or adapted from parts of the work of the following people. Make sure you check out their resources. If you are on this list, big thanks for being awesome and sharing your ideas with the world:

  1. Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West (The University of Washington)  for the Calling Bullshit Class:
  2. Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Why News Matters initiative, the Journalism Education Association, The News Literacy Project, and The Center for News Literacy at Stonybrook University for the News and Media Literacy Lessons and Columbia Links.
  3. Dr. Serena Carpenter: for several link recommendations and online ethnography ideas
  4. Masato Kajimoto, Howard Schneider, Anne Kruger, Steven Reiner, Jonathan Anzalone, Michael A. Spikes, Richard Hornik for the course Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens
  5. Center for news literacy at Stony Brook University for the News Literacy curriculum
  6. Howard Rheingold for the course Social Media literacies
  7. Folks at the Fake News Sci Google Group
  8. Melissa Zimdars for the list “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.”
  9. @Media_ReDesign for the Design solutions for Fake news
  10. My "fake news" research group: Craig Robertson, Julia DeCook, Soo Young Shin, Chankyung Pak and Kelley Cotter for their insights