If you are like me, the alarm about “fake news” reached a fever pitch in your librarian circles weeks ago. The list-serves are filled with blog posts, LibGuides, and lists of resources aimed at teaching students how to determine if the news in their social media feeds is real or “fake.” You are ready and eager to impart your librarian wisdom about authoritative sources and fact-based journalism on every future voter in your school. But what about the students who distrust the “mainstream media” and feel their views are more represented in sources you consider untrustworthy? How do we teach the skeptics to be critical thinkers and fact checkers, without alienating them by discounting their beliefs?
Practice, practice, practice
One way to combat stubborn skepticism is to give all students frequent opportunities to practice analyzing and discussing news stories, images, and videos. Phil Goerner, librarian at Silver Creek High School in Longmont, CO, theorizes that many students don’t always recognize bias when they see it, and they aren’t presented with enough opportunities to analyze sources critically. Goerner has been working with science and English teachers in his building to work source analysis into their curricula. He takes every opportunity to lure students in with a great story that motivates them to seek out the truth. Highly interesting stories like that of the mutant “Fukushima Nuclear Flowers,” included on page 16 of the summary of Stanford University’s recent report Evaluating Information: the Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, keep his students engaged and curious. Goerner had adapted other class exercises from the Sanford study, including a unit on how to do a reverse image search and an exercise on native advertising, using Slate magazine as an example, drawn from page nine of the study.
Pictures are particularly difficult for students to recognize as biased, Goerner observes, noting that videos and images foster an attitude of “if I see it, it must be true” in students. Media literacy expert Frank Baker has noticed the same behavior: “Some students… lack the ability to question a photo,” he says. Baker advises teachers and librarians to expose students to photos and videos that have been manipulated to present a specific perspective, and provide them frequent opportunities to analyze them.
Foster the skepticism
Tasha Bergson-Michelson, a librarian at the Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA, has been digging into the question of how to teach young people to interrogate what they read, hear, and see. She doesn’t want her students to trust a source unless they have good reason to. Her 10th graders work through a unit on source evaluation that involves them coming up with a shared rubric for the standards by which they will judge whether a source is trustworthy or not. Her students use the standards they’ve identified to argue the validity of the sources they choose moving forward in the project. Bergson-Michelson wants her students to understand that all news sources have a perspective, but they can look through that perspective to assess whether or not the information provided is fact-based and trustworthy.
Ask yourself the tough questions
In a recent article for the Data & Society Research Institute, danah boyd, social media scholar and Microsoft Research principal researcher, warns educators to be careful about seeking quick fixes for the current media crisis. Her article “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” describes the troubling fact that the Internet is so vast that empowered users can always find information to back their own ideas, no matter how wild or fraudulent they may be. Students, left to their own devices, can easily find sources that “prove” even the most dangerously incorrect “facts.”
“No curricular intervention is received by everyone universally, no intervention is ever ‘enough,’” boyd told SLJ. “Thus, the big question that I would throw back to educators is: what are the unintended consequences of your well-intended interventions?”
It’s not enough to provide students with a list of sources that are “real” and “fake,” boyd emphasizes. She writes, “It’s going to require a cultural change about how we make sense of information, whom we trust, and how we understand our own role in grappling with information.” That means deep dives, like the work Bergson-Michelson’s 10th graders are doing, scouring the internet for journalists’ backgrounds, and digging up the parent companies for news magazines.
Start with the [librarian] in the mirror
The best way to begin that cultural change is to face our own biases. Last spring, while Bergson-Michelson set out to teach her students about evaluating the news, she realized that she relied on the same handful of news sources, all of which leaned in one political direction. She sought credible sources from the other side of the aisle. Her search became an odyssey, described in detail in a blog post for the Association of Independent School Librarians.
Her advice for reaching students who think differently than you: practice what you preach. Read the work of writers who disagree with you, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Apply the same standards to all news sources, liberal, conservative, and everything in between. Don’t simply tell your students the sources that are valid, but teach them how you came to that decision, and give them opportunities to create their own group of credible sources.
Addie Matteson is a middle school librarian at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA.
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