In an effort to battle fake news outlets through a more educated electorate, the League of Women Voters of Santa Maria Valley will present a free, public panel discussion on the topic featuring professional journalists and other local experts.

“Media Literacy: Recognizing ‘Fake News’ and What To Do About It” will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20, at Hancock College's Marian Theatre.

The program is sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Hancock College, Santa Maria Times and The Fund for Santa Barbara.

Panelists include: Hugo Morales, founder of Radio Bilingüe; Jerry Roberts, founder of Newsmakers and calbuzz.com; Santa Maria Times Managing Editor Marga Cooley; Hancock College English professor Kate Adams; and Hancock College Faculty librarian and assistant professor Kellye Cohn.

“I’m hoping the participants, the audience, will come out committed to news based on fact, and an appreciation of serious journalism,” Morales said.

The panel will discuss how to differentiate between misleading information and fact-based news. It will also look at long-term solutions for protecting democracy through truth in media.

“We need to work with our schools, our children, to teach an appreciation for fact-based journalism and to continue to disseminate factual information to secure our democracy,” Morales said.

The idea was born from a presentation at the League of Women Voters Convention in June. Local club President Lisa Thornhill and Secretary Virginia Souza were inspired by a talk given by Brooke Binkowski.

Binkowski, an author for popular fact-checking website snopes.com, is an award-winning writer and researcher. According to her profile on Snopes, she has written and produced for CNN, CBS, NPR, the Globe and Mail, AJ+, the Christian Science Monitor and various other outlets.

The presentation was a game-changer for Souza.

“We realized what a big problem misleading information is to the election process. With midterm elections in 2018, we wanted bring that message home locally to inform the public how they can be watchful and diligent and make sure that what they read is fact and do the best they can to be informed voters,” Souza said.

Until she arrived at the presentation, Souza said she hadn’t heard news stories about the manipulation of social media to influence voters.

“I was extremely uninformed until I heard Brooke speak. She called it ‘misinformation’ rather than ‘fake news’ because it’s intentional. I found out about artificial intelligence that targets tech viewers based on their viewing habits, then targets them with false information,” Souza said.

She was appalled, she said.

“I really hadn’t been paying attention. That’s why I joined the League of Women Voters: to become a more informed voter. Really, I’m not terribly political. I’m not ‘rah-rah’ for either side. Maybe I’m typical. It’s scary when you learn about the bad information we get fed,” Souza said.

Souza said she has learned that no corner of the political spectrum is spared.

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“Liberals and conservatives put out disinformation. It’s important to be able to determine what is real and what isn’t,” Souza said.

Morales, who founded Radio Bilingüe in 1976, is a stickler for fact-based news provided in various formats. Print media, he said, must be preserved as the forerunner in investigative journalism. Radio needs to expand its fact-based news programming. Hispanic news outlets need to expand.

“Television, especially in Spanish, is entertainment, so we need to support serious journalism in any form. In electronic media, and radio and TV we need to advocate more serious journalism,” Morales said.

He added that the disconnect between fact and fiction is deeper in the Hispanic community.

“There’s no news on the radio in Spanish, and minimal news coverage on television — half an hour of national news with a sprinkling of local news. It’s just not healthy,” Morales said.

Though the media literacy panel will be run in English, Morales said Spanish interpreters will be on hand.

The forum will be viewable live on the Santa Maria Times website santamariatimes.com, and online viewers as well as members of the audience will have the opportunity to submit questions to the panel.

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