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KU professors land grant to help students, working journalists produce 'Real News in U.S., Russia'

Monday, November 20, 2017

LAWRENCE — Fake news is the news. While stories of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and misinformation continue to make headlines, researchers at the University of Kansas have secured a grant to develop practices for students and working journalists in both the United States and Russia to ensure they are gathering accurate, verified news.

KU researchers secured a one-year, nearly $90,000 grant from the U.S. State Department for the project “Real News in the U.S. and Russia: Peer-to-Peer Strategies for Fact-Checking and Verification.” The grant will pair instructors from KU with counterparts at the University for the Humanities in Ekaterinburg, Russia, and is a peer-to-peer project that will be led by non-government entities. Lisa McLendon, news & information track chair in the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications; Tom Volek, associate professor of journalism, and Vitaly Chernetsky, director of KU’s Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies, will lead the project.

The timing of the project is apt, given the near-daily news of Russian interference in the election and allegations of fake news surrounding the media and social media.

“We thought ‘fake news is a big thing right now,’ and a lot has come out about it, even before the recent news about Facebook and Twitter and the election,” McLendon said. “We know that, as journalists, it can be tough to verify information, and we need to teach our students the best ways to do that.”

Students and working journalists, both in the United States and Russia, will be the beneficiaries of the project. Researchers have begun planning and development for digital modules containing strategies and best practices for techniques such as information gathering and verification, photo verification, ways to determine whether social media sources are valid and similar techniques. The information will be included in KU journalism classes, and the resources will be made available to working journalists online in the future.

The researchers, who all have experience working with both the United States and Russia, will meet with partners from Ekaterinburg to discuss the differences in journalism in their respective countries, the unique challenges journalists face in both and what practices will be most effective in the two nations. KU researchers will visit Ekaterinburg early next year, and Russian partners will visit KU next May. Chernetsky, a native of Ukraine and native speaker of Russian, will supervise translation of the produced materials from Russian to English, and colleagues in Ekaterinburg will conduct translations from English to Russian.

“We are in a complicated time,” Chernetsky said. “One of the reasons this grant series came back into existence is because of the worsening of relations between the United States and Russia. We went back to a peer-to-peer relationship, a strategy commonly used in the final decades of the Cold War era, as dealing with government entities can be very difficult.”

The program will also be a boon to students studying Russian or U.S.-Russian relations, hoping to work in diplomatic fields or researching the area. The United States has a dearth of specialists in the social sciences and languages of Russia and Eastern Europe, and the project will be a way to encourage students to pursue the field.

“It will help students broaden their perspectives in how this skillset will be useful,” Chernetsky said. “KU has for 50 years been a significant center in the study of Eastern Europe and Russia, and our language programs are among the best in the nation. I think it’s very important to maintain this strength.”

In an era of new challenges to journalism, making information available to those in the field, as well as training future journalists in new, necessary practices and techniques for understanding the challenges between the two nations, is fitting. The researchers called the project a “happy meeting of two topics that could not be more topical and timely than it is now.”

In addition to providing tools to journalists and students, the program has the potential to improve diplomatic relations.

“There are the politicians and the people,” McLendon said. “No matter how fraught the politics may be, when the people get together, they tend to get along and realize they have the same goals and can build better relationships.”

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