The Smell Test: Educators can counter fake news with information literacy. Here's how.

In the era of fake news, librarians are our best hope for educating kids about bogus reporting, biased points of view, and more.
Illustration by Steve Brodner

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Discerning fact from fiction in news and online content has never been more challenging. From “pizzagate”—false reports of a child sex ring operating in a DC pizza parlor—and creepy clown attacks to retweeted election headlines touting events that never happened, fake news is rampant. Twenty-three percent of Americans say they have shared fabricated reports, knowingly or not, according to a December Pew Research Center report.

Librarians have an opportunity to take leadership in the current crisis. As proven authorities on information literacy, library professionals can help students analyze news authenticity. It’s time to step up to the plate.

That requires expertise—and perseverance. While school librarians are updating lessons on news literacy, a recent study from researchers at Stanford University underscored the challenges of media and social media education for kids. Students’ ability to evaluate information on the Internet is “bleak,” according to the report.

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend,” state the researchers from the Stanford History Education Group. “But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The Stanford team designed assessments that requested students to distinguish between a news item and an ad. One test asked middle schoolers why they might not trust an article on financial planning sponsored by a bank and written by a bank executive. Many failed to cite authorship or sponsorship as reasons to question the content.

Lessons to combat fake news

In addition to helping students identify outright falsehoods, media specialists can play a key role in teaching them to distinguish between advertising, opinion articles, and reported news, as well as identify politically leaning platforms of all stripes. The fake news industry and spread of false reports have also drawn attention to how educators can help students be skeptical of stories that are not well reported.

Leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, fabricated campaign-related news stories—designed to sound true enough that people will click on and share them—received more attention and were shared more frequently on social media than news from traditional outlets, an analysis showed. However, fake Internet news has been around for a long time. For instance, an erroneous 2014 report described an effort to enforce Islamic law in Florida. Also in 2014, a false story about Colorado residents buying marijuana with food stamps led a state representative to introduce legislation to prevent these purchases. Taking an even broader historic perspective, a recent Scientific American blog post on false news surfaced a document fabricated by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages to claim control over various regions of Europe.

The difference now is that “there is more fake news out there, and the proliferation of social media just means it can be disseminated rapidly via many channels,” says Frank W. Baker, a media literacy expert who conducts workshops across the country. “We have more access than ever. But access does not imply quality, and the vast information we’re being bombarded with demands a renewed emphasis on and teaching of media literacy.”

Frank W. Baker leads a media literacy workshop. Photo courtesy of Frank W. Baker

Frank W. Baker leads a media literacy workshop.
Photo courtesy of Frank W. Baker

Also, technology now makes it possible for someone to design a fake news site that looks and feels very much like the real thing, and social media enables false or incorrect reports to go viral. In Waukegan, IL, for example, students at an elementary school admitted that their reports of creepy clowns wielding weapons—really just construction workers with tools—were not true. But by that time, the school was already on lock down. Shared through social media, the story fueled fears that bands of clowns were lurking all over the Chicago area.

Demand for instructional resources for news literacy is on the rise. “We’ve gotten a lot of interest in the past week,” says Peter Adams, senior vice president for educational programs at the Chicago-based News Literacy Project (NLP). Launched in 2008 by former Los Angeles Times reporter Alan C. Miller, the organization originally focused on bringing the four pillars of its curriculum—news matters, the First Amendment, the standards of quality journalism, and the current news and information landscape—into schools by partnering with teachers and librarians, as well as volunteer journalists who would share their own experiences. The lessons are taught as “drop-in” units, often in English language arts or social studies classes.

Now, NLP is putting its efforts into making the lessons more widely available through its program, checkology virtual classroom. With the free basic version, teachers can offer the interactive lessons to an entire class, while a premium version provides individual student licenses for a one-to-one or blended learning model. So far, the program has reached more than 30,000 students, Adams says.

One lesson on branded content, for instance, asks students to sort various examples, rank them in order of most to least transparent, and determine which one “crossed the line” to full-on advertising, perhaps only quoting or featuring people and products associated with the sponsor. Branded content is meant to provide information and educate readers or viewers about a topic.

Native advertising, another form of paid content, appears to match the tone and style of the news outlet where it appears, but is ultimately trying to sway the public to buy a product or service. Some experts say this deception—while helping to keep publishers in business—can confuse readers and erode trust. Most of these ads carry a small tag indicating they are paid posts, but directing readers to the business or product is still the goal.

Writers of fake news, however, might not be out to sell anything and are sometimes motivated by ideology. Jestin Coler, the fake news writer who penned the story about marijuana purchased with food stamps, for example, says in an NPR report that he got into the practice because he wanted to draw attention to the extremism of white nationalists.

Janis Schachter’s News Literacy class at Northport (NY) High School. Photo by Janis Schachter

Janis Schachter’s news literacy class at Northport (NY) High School
Photo by Janis Schachter

Librarians on the front lines

In the push to sharpen students’ critical thinking and analysis skills, Cyndy Scheibe, executive director of the Project Look Sharp media literacy initiative at Ithaca (NY) College, says “Librarians are always our front line” and adds that the attention to fake news reinforces the importance of librarians having the training they need to teach media and news literacy. Her organization’s site offers free lesson plans for all grade levels as well as links to a variety of resources.

In the workshops Scheibe conducts for librarians and other educators, she explains that there are two types of critical thinking skills—weak sense and strong sense. Weak sense critical thinking is when someone questions and checks out something that doesn’t seem to be right, and strong sense critical thinking is when that person applies the same standards to information that he or she believes to be true.

She uses her own experience as an example. In the early 2000s, when she first began conducting media literacy workshops, she shared a photo of President George W. Bush reading with a child in a classroom, but holding a book upside down. Because of her unfavorable views of the 43rd president, she didn’t question the photo until someone asked her whether the picture was real.

“[I’m] a media literacy person [and I] hadn’t thought to ask if it was a real picture,” she says. “We need to critique things from all sides.”

The Center for News Literacy, at Stony Brook University in New York, offers a 14-week course addressing how to determine if a news story is true, how journalists verify information, and how to recognize biased coverage. Lessons and teaching strategies are also available through the center’s Digital Resource Center.

While most teachers who complete the course incorporate the lessons into existing classes, a few have built their own news literacy courses. At Northport High School on Long Island, for example, news literacy fulfills a state requirement that seniors take a year-long course preparing them to participate in an informed democracy.

“What I’m doing is very similar to what librarians are doing,” says Janis Schachter, a social studies teacher who leads the course at Northport. She teaches her students what journalists do, and they sift through all they see, read, and hear in the media.

They learn how to tell whether the writer or broadcaster has verified his or her information, whether the author is independent from the topic or entity featured in the story, and whether that author can be contacted in case of a question. Schachter tells them, “If you’re on the Internet, and you don’t have those three things, [the article] can’t be trusted.” She also asks students to check out the sources used in the story. To illustrate poor journalism, she often shares an actual broadcast news report with her students that used only one source—a so-called doctor who was not identified.

Resources and tools

In other schools, librarians are leading efforts to better inform students how to follow breaking news and consult multiple news sources when the topic is controversial.

In a blog post, Joyce Valenza, assistant professor at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, provides multiple guidelines and resources for librarians looking to respond to the topic of fake news or shore up their teaching of news literacy.

“I see a serious need for librarians to build a few seaworthy arks from the news media flood to aid students in discerning credibility, reliability, and bias in context of their information needs and the context of the text itself,” she writes. “I can see us introducing the broad notion of triangulation to children for whom the word may be difficult to say.”

Laura Gardner (see “Teaching Media Literacy Now"), librarian at Dartmouth (MA) Middle School, says she teaches her students how to use the CARS method—which stands for credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, and support. While recommended for evaluating information found online while doing research, the checklist can also be applied to news reports. Gardner, who attended a summer teacher workshop at the Stony Brook Center for News Literacy, also introduces her students to resources that debunk fake news, such as Snopes, Politifact, and FactCheck.

Baker notes that lessons on media literacy should also be backed up with resources on the library shelves that further allow students to gain skills in interpreting media messages. “In many of the school libraries that I have visited, I have not found many books on media, let alone how media works,” he says.

Baker’s website, the Media Literacy Clearinghouse, offers links to recommended books and other resources for educators. He also recommends that librarians and teachers post media literacy questions on their walls so that students can always refer to them:

• Who is the author/producer/creator of the message? • Who is the audience? • What techniques are being used to get our attention and to make a message believable? • Who benefits from a message? • Who or what is omitted and why?

Claudia Haines, a youth services librarian at the Homer (AK) Public Library, recommends that librarians also explore national and state library association websites for media literacy training opportunities, as well as ideas from other librarians.

Media literacy, pre-K

Media literacy experts stress that children should begin acquiring these questioning skills long before they are old enough to use social media. Even in the early years, they can begin to question the messages in signs and TV commercials.

“As they come to and from school, they can be encouraged to recognize and identify signs and their meanings,” Baker says. “Why do some signs use only [certain] colors and what do those colors mean?”

Haines begins introducing media literacy concepts during story times for preschoolers, when she asks them whether the story is real or imaginary.

“I start with two words many of them already know and then include words like true, informational, fiction and nonfiction as we talk,” says Haines, coauthor of Becoming a Media Mentor: A Guide for Working with Children and Families (ALA, 2016). “This often-entertaining conversation may only go on for a minute or two, but it gets them started critically thinking about the information in front of them.”

Older students, Baker says, can use the variety of apps and digital tools available to create their own media messages and further explore how readers and viewers are influenced—skills that tie into STEAM learning.

Adams at NLP adds that students in middle school and high school—even those who are not particularly motivated academically—are especially receptive to learning about media and express the “outrage that is necessary” to be engaged in learning about how advertisers, advocates, and other groups try to manipulate the public. Baker notes that analyzing propaganda, the angle of a news story, or other messages used in media also tie in with Common Core standards in English language arts.

“The danger is that [students will] decide they can’t trust anything,” Schachter says, “and I don’t want that to be the lesson.”

Through a News Literacy Project initiative, students at Washington, DC’s Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School visit the Politico newsroom and get a cartooning lesson from political cartoonist Matt Wuerker. Photo by Maureen Freeman

Through a News Literacy Project initiative, students at Washington,
DC’s Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School visit the Politico newsroom and
get a cartooning lesson from political cartoonist Matt Wuerker.

Photo by Maureen Freeman

Legislation

To make sure that media literacy is more widely available in today’s schools, some advocates are focusing on passing state legislation, such as the Digital Citizenship/Media Literacy Bill that was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in Washington State last year.

In addition, Media Literacy Now, a Watertown, MA-based nonprofit organization, has been working with Common Sense Kids Action, which pushes legislative efforts, to craft model legislation based on the Washington law, and encourage more states to move in this direction. Under that law, state education officials will create an advisory group that will identify effective instructional practices and develop recommendations on digital citizenship, Internet safety, and media literacy. Beginning next school year, districts will also be required to review their policies and procedures in this area.

Civics courses are also logical places to incorporate a focus on news literacy, Adams notes. In Illinois, for example, a new law took effect this year requiring high school students to take a semester-long civics course in order to graduate. The course is expected to include discussions on “current and controversial issues.” The state was one of only 11 without a civics graduation requirement, and the Civics Education Initiative, launched in 2013, is advocating for such requirements in all states. Comments that former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made on civic ignorance have put the issue in the spotlight recently.

Involve parents

Because the sources that family members tend to follow are likely to influence how children perceive the news, experts say it’s also important for news literacy lessons to involve parents.

“The fast pace of change in the digital media environment has taught us that appreciating what makes information accurate and high quality—instead of solely relying on specific sources—is essential,” Haines says. “Fake news websites that play off the names of well-known news outlets are great examples of why this is so important.”

Schools frequently offer digital literacy workshops for parents to provide guidance on Internet safety and social media apps their children might be using. Weaving a discussion of news literacy into these gatherings is another way to raise awareness among these adults, Scheibe suggests.

In NLP’s lessons, one activity requires students to request their profile through AboutTheData, a website from the marketing technology company Acxiom. Profiles include information that has been collected about consumers and that advertisers—and purveyors of fake news—might use to target their messages. This information helps to explain some of the posts that turn up in a person’s news feed.

Students, Adams says, are often encouraged to share that information with parents, or have them complete the same process as a way for them to be more conscious of media information.

“Collaborating with parents is essential,” Baker says. “We can have all the media literacy education galore at school, and what happens when students get home? Parents also need media literacy skills so that they can help students sift through media and make wise decisions and choices.”

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Eric Gilbert

BTW, at the moment Google is letting partners and publishers decide what's true, what's false and what's in between. Google said. "Even though differing conclusions may be presented, we think it’s still helpful for people to understand the degree of consensus around a particular claim and have clear information on which sources agree." While any publisher can apply to add fact-check labels to content, Google search algorithms will determine whether they appear in results.

Posted : Apr 11, 2017 06:15


Missy

Very helpful and timely information. Thank you.

Posted : Jan 21, 2017 02:34


Emily

Another issue related to fake news & biased sources that has been on my mind as our district transitions to 1:1 with Chromebooks: the impact that personalizing algorithms have on our very search results! If students are constantly logged into their Google accounts on Chromebooks (and teachers are constantly logged into their Chrome browsers), Google is always collecting data and personalizing search results, making it even more difficult to even *find* sources outside of their personal biases. How do we address that??

Posted : Jan 19, 2017 07:44


Shelley

Nice idea, but FactCheck, Politifact, and Snopes are useless. You can't put in a question, even a simple one like "Is Obama a Muslim?" and get a clear answer. You get a list of articles to read, and in fact when I tried the Obama question, the first article listed on one of the three websites above had a misleading headline that Obama had "admitted" to being a Muslim. We need a NEW simple objective fact-checking website where you can type in a question and get a brief clear answer. This is what students will use and understand. If anybody knows of such a website, please let us know. Thanks.

Posted : Jan 10, 2017 05:29


Frank Baker

I've been following all of the coverage on 'fake news' and have compiled all of the advice and recommendations on this web page, which I hope you'll consider using: http://frankwbaker.com/mlc/fake-news-recommendations/ The site also includes links to some lesson plans and appropriate videos.

Posted : Jan 09, 2017 08:21

Trina D. Taylor

Thank you. I definitely like your plans and want to incorporate them with my older kids.

Posted : Jan 09, 2017 08:21


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