Equipping Students in the Era of Fake News
The term “fake news” was introduced to every day vernacular by our current president. Since then, it has been assigned to just about any reporting that was unfavorable or news that did not support one’s personal world view.
Rather to dismiss these claims, however, we can teach students what constitutes “Fake News.” Let’s focus primarily on web sources, since our students will typically begin their research there.
Determining what news is fake or real is harder than we think. I read an article by Tennessee Watson entitled “To Test Your Fake News Judgement, Play this Game.” The game, Factitious allows you to test your fake news radar. Sadly, not even this educator (two thumbs pointing at self) could successfully detect real from fake news. Go ahead, you give it a try! See if your fake news radar is better than mine. Difficult? I know! My thoughts began to center around the danger this posed for students in what seems to be a post-truth world of information.
If YOU don’t teach them, who will? Oftentimes, I think research skills are dismissed by content area teachers outside of English or Social Studies. If your students use the internet to gather information (and they SHOULD), this falls on your shoulders as well. We tend to over-scaffold our students, sending them to sources that have already been vetted. While that will provide them with reliable information for now, it will not prepare students for life beyond the classroom. Without the appropriate skills to equip students with discernment, the internet is the modern day equivalent to the Wild, Wild West. We are sending them unarmed, vulnerable to sites that appear factual, but present “alternative facts” upon which they will build their beliefs and world views.
Media Bias and Fact Checkers After playing Factitious, I realized that I could not discern fact from fiction based on the title alone, rather the reliability of the internet source was much more likely to influence whether the information was reliable. Since then, I’ve used Media Bias/Fact Check which offers researchers a rating on two key indicators: bias and factual reporting. While every source typically has some bias, the factual reporting can help readers to determine the factual reliability of the source. Since the website seemed difficult for me to navigate, I found the quickest way to check a source like, for example CNN, would be to type “media bias fact check CNN” in the Google search bar, where you’d see this report which rated CNN a left bias with mixed factual reporting, similar to it’s conservative counterpart FOX News. What is particularly helpful is that propagandist news sources such as the Conservative Daily and it’s liberal counterpart, the Democratic Review, are reviewed and clearly deemed “Questionable Sources” by the site.
A Powerful Exercise in Media Review If students are always given texts that are reliable by teachers, they will come to the conclusion that all text is innately reliable. To convince students otherwise, you might engage in research on a topic in which there is an abundance of research on all sides of the issue. Assign students different articles from all along the spectrum. Create a horizontal line placing opposing views on either extreme. Have students determine where to place their assigned article based on what they deem is it’s appropriate place based on evidence from the article. This exercise would not only allows students the opportunity to reflect on bias and opposing viewpoints, but also would prepare students to make well-informed claims on the topic based on a plethora of evidence from all points of view. For teachers to quickly access texts representing multiple views all along the spectrum they can use a web resource called All Sides which allows users to search a topic and sorts web resources by left, center and right.
Another Powerful Exercise in Media Review In order to help students to reflect on how they search, ask them to engage in this meta cognitive exercise. Here’s what this might look like.
The teacher asks students, “Which is better, to study in the morning or at night?” and then, follow up with these instructions:
- Quick write a few personal thoughts in response to the question.
- Search the internet for an answer.
- Write down ALL the steps you took to find your answer.
Students can share each step and categorize it is a good or questionable practice for internet searches. After that, the teacher engages students in a conversation about how each of the topics can influence how they might search for information on the internet.
- URL Common Sense Which sites are typically more believable: those ending in .org or .com? Students think that .org is typically more believable. After all, pbs.org is a fabulous, altruistic site that students enjoy. I wonder if they would maintain that opinions if they knew that Neo Nazi websites would also typically carry a .org URL? Also, they typically believe .com must be unreliable since it is typically associated with commercial use, therefore sites bearing it’s name are trying to sell us something, right? Keep in mind that most mainstream news sources carry that domain extension. This is certainly a conversation worth having with our students.
- First is Not Always Best The website that tops the list of our Google searches is chosen not because it is the best or most reliable source, rather it is the most popular source. That is, it has received the most “clicks.” With concern about bots and political activism, we cannot rely on the fact that what is most popular is also most reliable.
- Authority of Source When students research for answers, they may stop the search at the title. In order to access the evidence and reasoning upon which the claim was built, students must read, or at least skim, the article. Is the conclusion based on the work of an expert in the field? What makes someone an expert in a field? Was quantitative or qualitative data used to reach that conclusion? All of these questions must be answered before a student can accept the claim upon which the title was built.
Early and Often In order for students to learn how to discern facts from fake news, we’re going to have to start teaching students digital literacy the moment they begin to use the internet to obtain information. And, like most learning, teaching students to be wise consumers of the internet will have to be a recurring theme throughout their academic career. We (I teach Math) content area teachers can’t place all the responsibility on literacy teachers. For example, science teachers might have additional concerns about search results. For example, scientists would want teachers to consider if the research is peer reviewed. All educators must own and prioritize wise internet use as a skill that will empower students far beyond their years with us. #Kidsdeserveit
I’d like to thank Patricia Tylka for the two very practical strategies in this article. She presented a fabulous session entitled Coaching Digital Natives through Research in the Age of Google at the Illinois Reading Council’s Annual Conference this weekend.