How Do We Combat Fake News in Our Classrooms?

Misinformation and the Spread of Fake News

After the election, a larger swath of the population has been discussing “fake news.”  Calls for “media literacy” ring out from interviews and articles.  For example, at the end of an hour-long NPR interview, fake news researcher Craig Silverman offered this solution almost as an afterthought:

[W]e need to put this [fake news] in our education system. There are a lot of people being fooled by fake news. There are a lot of people who don’t know how to kind of check out the story they’re reading online and that’s understandable. It’s not a matter of intelligence. We’re consuming media in very different ways. We’re having a whole menu of links and things from all different kinds of sources fed to us every day by Facebook. And that’s very different from opening up a newspaper and knowing where everything was coming from. So I think we do in our schools need to start thinking about how we integrate more media literacy and critical thinking education so that people can make better judgments for themselves.

This national handwringing does not surprise educators that have been arguing for “media literacy” in the classroom for years.  Twenty years ago when I worked to add a unit on media literacy for my students, I was told it didn’t “fit” into the curriculum, so I found a way to teach it to seniors during their last month of school; the heavy strictures of the canon did not allow for popular texts to enjoy the status of classroom material.  

Media literacy means thinking about media as a text and using critical reading strategies to read those texts. Back in 1997, it meant learning how to read television, magazines, and newspapers.  Today it means learning how to read social media and Internet news.  The critical reading skills are the same:  only the texts are different.

What is missing from these national calls for media literacy is a plan.  The education system is supposed to “put this in our education system,” but we are not given time, space, or institutional support for such educating.  Teachers have been warning about this need and have snuck in these lessons, though the Common Core Standards that have guiding classrooms have very little directive for media literacy specifically.  

When the English Language Arts Standards ultimately argue that they “lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person who is prepared for success in the 21st century,” direct engagement with Internet sources and social media must be at the forefront—not an afterthought.  The National Association for Media Literacy has done extensive work in finding ways to intersect media literacy with CCSS. Such specific and hands-on practices are necessary if we are to teach students to read critically the barrage of information that comes at them in their daily lives.

I would offer the following strategies as ways to incorporate discussions about fake news into units on research and writing, as finding time to teach any new concept is challenging in an already-packed and prescribed curriculum.

  • Discuss the difference between bias and argument:  Many of my first-year composition students use the word “bias” when teach I about “argument.”  They struggle with allowing themselves to “argue” something.  I explain that “argue” means something different from pundits yelling on a screen, that arguing has a perspective; however, a good argument shows that the writer has tangled with and considered the counterarguments.  Reading for “argument” and reading for “bias” will help students differentiate between the two.  For more teaching considerations about these terms, visit Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric
  • Identify inflammatory language and punctuation:  A good rule is if the article is using more than one exclamation point, it is probably fake or biased. composed a list of signs in their article That Chain E-mail Your Friend Sent to You Is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously. When it comes to language, look for a lot of use of “very” or other hyperbolic words.  A credible edited source isn’t going to allow such an overuse of sensational language.
  • Look at the “About” or “Contact Us” page of a source:  In the good old days at the turn of the century, I could use the rule that a .com was to be avoided but a .org site was probably ok.  Gone are those days of easy rules.  Students now need to delve deeper into a site to find out about the editors and their mission.  For example, there is no “contact us” button on Breitbart’s website.  The New York Times can be easily contacted. A google search of the NYT editorial board brings up a long list of people and their qualifications.  The same search for Breitbart brings up, well, nothing.  Except a Wikipedia page.  Not knowing who is publishing and editing the source is the first sign that there is little transparency and the source is probably not working toward productive argument.
  • Teach Blogging:  Perhaps the most effective way of getting students to think about sourcing is to show them just how easy it is to create a source of their own.  When they see that no one is checking their work when they post to a WordPress site of their own, they may see that there is really no one behind the proverbial curtain working the Internet.  Demystifying how to make a site can teach students the lesson to be careful about any site they view.  Moving an annotated bibliography assignment away from paper and onto a blog has been an effective way to build this lesson into my writing courses.

Now that more parties are paying attention to fake news, we as educators have an opportunity to embed more media literacy lessons into our daily teaching practices.

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