By Liz Lebron
Research, Instruction and Data Services Librarian Winn Wasson became interested in how misinformation and disinformation affect the political process after the 2016 presidential election. Wasson, who has held political science adjunct faculty, lecturer and instructor positions at various universities, saw an opportunity to work with students on understanding this issue and organized an independent study project during the January term.
“Rather than trying to answer whether the information we get from the news is ‘good information’ or ‘bad information’,” wrote Wasson in the ISP announcement, “in this ISP, we will look at the process through which the news gets from observations in the field to what we consume from our news sources, and what influences us to determine whether or not we will believe the information we consume is true or false.”
Students learned about both sides of the newsmaking process when Wasson hosted a panel discussion featuring alumnae Shane Donglasan and Wesley Beggs. Beggs holds a political science degree from New College and in 2018 ran for a seat on the Sarasota County Commission. She beat incumbent Mike Consentino during the primary but lost the general election to Republican Alan Maio.
Donglasan earned a social studies degree from New College and worked for the Sarasota Observer during the elections, where she had the opportunity to interview Beggs in her role as a reporter covering local issues. The two women gave students unique insight into the inner workings of campaign messaging and media framing in the age of fake news and digital media.
“I had never talked to a reporter before [the election],” said Beggs of an interview she granted the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “I mentioned March [for Our Lives] and how important it is to support young people, and that was the only quote they used out of a 40-minute conversation about zoning laws and other policies. After that, I sought out media help.”
Beggs said the Florida Democratic Party sent her to work with a public relations firm to fine-tune her message and show her techniques to pivot back to the issues when reporters focused on her youth.
Donglasan expressed surprise at how thorough the firm’s tactics were but acknowledged reporters’ focus on audience engagement can run counter to reporting on public policy. “You’re almost writing for these algorithms,” she conceded, “you’re not writing for people.”
Although Donglasan has enjoyed the freedom to do her job without editorial interference throughout her career, audience expectations influenced what stories gained salience in her reporting.
“From my end,” recalled Donglasan, “reporting the election at The Observer, even going to the Democratic election watch party was an afterthought. Our readership is mostly right-leaning, so why even bother covering Democrats?”
Beggs did not experience fake news attacks, but she feels her message was misrepresented through omissions and deceptive framing.
“The caliber of our local publication is such that I was never on the receiving end [of fake news] from them,” said Beggs. “There was a sincere effort on their part to tell the truth, if not all of the truth, at least part of it.”
Both women acknowledged political operatives and the journalists who cover them are still grappling with the impact of digital and social media, including clickbait and fake news. They advocate, among other things, for news consumers to avoid information silos and seek out points of view that do not adhere to their beliefs. In the race to fill content faster than other outlets, the alumnae recommend stringent vetting of media sources the public consumes and shares.
Donglasan, who now works at the New College Office of Marketing and Communications, does not miss being a reporter in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
“I wanted a life again,” she said. “You can’t really leave your job because the news is always going on. I miss telling stories, and I’m fortunate to get to tell the story of New College now.”
— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.