The University of Newcastle, Australia

Making sense of media

Associate Professor Craig Hight’s research is helping audiences spot misinformation and fake news in an increasingly confusing media environment.

Image of Craig Hight

In this age of ‘fake news’, mis-reporting and mis-information it’s becoming increasingly difficult for audiences to make sense of the huge amount of information that flows into our sphere on a daily basis. Associate Professor Craig Hight is doing research that helps us distil this to ensure we are receiving accurate information.

He says we have entered an age where there is increasing distrust in institutions and a range of factual based media.

“It’s become quite a challenging environment for practitioners to create media that is effective at communicating and is engaging in a democratic way. It’s also challenging for audiences to decide what is authentic and real and what are the agendas that are driving media. It’s a very fraught environment for all stakeholders,” he said.

Hight researches the complexity of sources people use to get their news and information. “In the non-fiction realm this news is essential for how people make political decisions and inform themselves, which is a fundamental concern for the healthiness of democratic debate and decision making,” he said.

Entertainment is another strand of research Hight is involved in, looking at the impact of the opening up of access to a range of experiences and how they give meaning to our lives and provide culture and identity forming opportunities.

“Cinematic experiences help us make sense of the world and give us common touch points. However these experiences are becoming more complicated in a more fractured media landscape where it’s harder to find widespread commonalities around media engagement,” he said.

“The days of millions of people all sitting around watching pivotal moments on television at the same time, such as the Olympics, are gone. So what does that mean for us as humans and how does that help or hinder us from making sense of the world?”

Media Doctor

One project that Hight is involved in is focused on assisting people to assess the validity and integrity of health information as it’s reported through the news.

The project, known as Media Doctor, is a collaboration with Hight’s colleague in nursing and midwifery, Dr Amanda Wilson. The goal of Media Doctor is to solve the problem of ‘Health Misinformation’ in the media.

“For example, stories linking the measles vaccine to hazardous side effects, such as autism, are directly responsible for the highest number of measles cases and deaths in Europe in a decade. Despite irrefutable evidence debunking links between vaccines and autism, persistent false information raises doubt and fear in many people,” Associate Professor Hight said.

The rise of the blogger, citizen journalism and so-called ‘fake news’ provides conflicting information and makes it hard to know which sources to trust. Social media has replaced traditional media as the main source of news for most people, even when the source of the information is undetermined. Hight says this has transformed availability and accessibility of health information but fosters a confusing and dangerous environment for consumers.

“Poor health information is eternally recycled causing anxiety and panic, poor health choices, unnecessary costs and possibly even death.”

“This project aims to develop a resource that will allow everyday users to test out news stories around health they have encountered and to have confidence about what is credible and reliable information.”

Media Doctor will be an online, open access resource, where people can learn to assess and rate the quality of health information. The site will publish the health articles with a star rating of their quality so anyone can judge their relative value.

“The people who come across these articles are often people at their most vulnerable who are desperately seeking reliable, high quality information. Instead, they often find false hope and a waste of precious time and resources,” Hight said. “Media Doctor teaches these people to quickly assess the worth of material they are reading as well as current, easy to access (star-ratings) assessments of the quality of the articles.”

“We want to use our research in a meaningful way to respond to the increase in fake news and a range of emerging media which are making things increasingly confusing.”

Future proofing the cinema industry

As technology evolves so too has the way we seek out our entertainment. At the click of a button on our phone, tablet or television we can access hundreds of movies and programs via streaming services. Naturally this increase in accessibility to entertainment has had an impact on more traditional forms of entertainment, like the cinema industry.

Associate Professor Hight is part of the Cinema Industry Research Network and is and is working with colleague Dr Simon Weaving to help to future proof the cinema industry. The network is made up of University of Newcastle researchers and film industry stakeholders from the distribution and exhibition sectors.

“We are researching people’s perception of the cinema industry, so the industry can re-think the way they appeal to the community,” Hight said. “I’m wanting to get a richer understanding of what people think they are gaining from entertainment experience’s and how that is shifting and what it means for businesses.”

“The audience is in transition and a number of sectors are being disrupted by new ways people can connect with content. It is a challenging time for the cinema so they need to understand in a more concrete way how they fit in the broader perspective of the entertainment industry.”

The qualitative research seeks to understand how consumers differentiate between entertainment/leisure experiences, how they determine investment decisions, and how they value specific rituals associated with cinema and competing experiences.

Hight said the research will produce a knowledge base that will provide insights and inputs that can be used to develop and trial industry initiatives that enhance the customer journey through the cinema experience.

“Through this research we want to find ways to help the cinema industry become more relevant to younger consumers who are more used to a user experience connected world.”