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Jan. 22, 2016, 11:51 a.m.
Reporting & Production

A Howard project is debunking myths about African-Americans and teaching students fact-checking

“There are more black men in prison than college.” “A dollar spent in the black community stays there for only six hours.” A project at Howard University aims to dispel oft-repeated myths.

In December, NewsOne, a news platform aimed at African-American audiences, published a story with the headline “Buying Black: The Lifespan of a Dollar in African-American Communities Is Six Hours.”

The story went on to cite Brooke Stephens, author of a book that argues that African Americans need to spend more money at local black businesses. “The lifespan of a dollar in the Asian community is 28 days, in the Jewish community the lifespan of a dollar is 19 days,” the article said.

But where did that factoid, which has been recycled over the years, even come from? Is it actually true?

TruthBeTold.news, an initiative out of Howard University’s Department of Media, Journalism and Film in the School of Communications, aims to help students fact-check — and, often, dispel — such claims about the African-American community. The project both hones journalism students’ researching and reporting skills and provides a public service by offering a hub where readers can get accurate information.

TruthBeTold.news launched last semester and published its first stories in November. The ideas for facts and claims to check come from students as well as faculty members. One student, Brookie Madison, had originally wanted to study the claim that black people don’t support black businesses, and ended up going down the research rabbit hole to debunk the “lifespan of a dollar” statistic.

“My experience with this article wasn’t what I was used to,” Madison, 20, told me. “I was used to writing about a current event or some type of issue in the news or student community, with a quick turn-around. Working on this article allowed me to really understand how sometimes the topic can change and lead in a different direction.”

After extensive research and interviews, Madison concluded:

The claim that a dollar circulates in the black community for only six hours cannot be substantiated.

The federal government does not produce data that would allow such a comparison.

In addition, economists contacted by TruthBeTold.news said some of the data cited, such as information about dollars circulating in the Jewish community, is questionable because the federal government does not collect information by religion. And researchers would be unable to get the information accurately from a survey of consumers.

The earliest source of the statistic appears to be a book that is nearly 20 years old. The book also never mentions the name of the study nor provides any information about the author.

The seed of the idea for TruthBeTold.news came from New York Times Washington correspondent Ron Nixon, who taught a course at Howard last year. “I watched fact-checking sites grow and realized that there was nothing specific that dealt with issues affecting blacks in the U.S.,” he said. “There are so many myths and misconceptions, and a few of the fact-checking sites out there did deal with some of the issues, but not in a systematic way. I thought this would be a good idea and perform an important public service, but I also realized it could be a really great teaching tool.”

There are, of course, other sites devoted to fact-checking the news, but many, like PolitiFact, focus largely on politics. There doesn’t appear to be any other site devoted to fact-checking news about the African-American community.

Yanick Rice Lamb, associate professor and chair of the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film, submitted a proposal for the project to ONA’s Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. It was one of 11 winners for 2015–16, receiving $35,000 in funding.

Associate professor Ingrid Sturgis is teaching TruthBeTold.news as a one-credit class this semester; its elements are also included in other classes, and any other students or professors who want to participate can.

“We have different levels of students,” Lamb said. “Some are more experienced, some are greener.” The students come in with varying degrees of skepticism about the news; one of the project’s goals is to hone those skills and increase that skepticism.

Sturgis teaches a digital media literacy class for freshmen. “One of the things we talk about is finding credible information online,” she said. In one assignment, students have to look at information and evaluate its credibility. For younger students, “the nuances of news and information sometimes escape them,” she said. “There was one assignment where they were looking at a site about media bias. They didn’t realize that, because the site was maybe a conservative or liberal site, that that’s a form of bias in and of itself. That just showed me that I had to double down on what you’re looking for when you’re looking for credible information online. It was a teachable moment.”

The story about a dollar in the black community was particularly eye-opening for the students, Lamb said: They were surprised that “people have been saying this for two decades, and it’s not true.”

Other fact-checks have included “Is D.C. Still the Chocolate City?” and “Can Ben Carson Help Republicans Attract Black Voters?” There’s also news, opinion, and an arts and entertainment section that features, among other topics, a story and video about black people in classical music.

One student is now working on a story about mental illness among African Americans; another is researching the “saggy pants” stereotype. “They come up with ideas based on the things that they’re hearing. Some of it is related to entertainment, but it comes from a variety of places,” Sturgis said.

“Students are a little incensed that people think all they care about is hip-hop, or that they don’t read,” Lamb said. “Sometimes they can surprise you with their deep knowledge on certain things. Other times, I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you don’t know that? I feel like a dinosaur.'”

Moving forward, Lamb and Sturgis are thinking about how TruthBeTold.news fits in more broadly with the mission of Howard’s journalism school. “We believe right now it’s anybody’s game,” Lamb said. “We’re trying to get students to think creatively and be innovative and business-minded, while at the same time focusing on the core journalistic principles, and keeping in mind the basics.”

And new basics include social media and multimedia. “We’d like to be right in the conversation, so that if something’s going viral on social media, we can fact-check it in the moment,” Lamb said. That fact-checking could simply live on social media, rather than being reported on TruthBeTold’s website. Lamb also wants to do more multimedia fact-checking, using video and audio rather than just text.

TruthBeTold.news is emphatically not just a “practice” site for journalism students. “We want to do everything we can to get the word out there,” Lamb said. Jane Elizabeth, senior research project manager at the American Press Institute, marked the site’s launch on her blog, and The New York Times’ The Upshot mentioned it in a post.

“We’re allowing them to build something that could possibly be monetized,” Lamb said. “They’re learning how to build an audience, coming up with social media plans to build the audience. How are we going to make it sustainable after our grant runs out?”

Photo illustration of Howard University library, past and present, by Jeremiah Young used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 22, 2016, 11:51 a.m.
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