Fighting Fake News


Each week it is my pleasure to teach a course at Canisius College called “Adolescent Literacy in a New Literacy World.” It is for undergraduate Education majors, and our goal is to decipher what “literacy” means in a society that both produces and consumes a tremendous amount of fake news, reacts and reposts in real-time, and is suffering from an outdated education model that still admonishes students not to trust Wikipedia and has just started to understand the repercussions of unlimited screen time. Before you read much more though, I need to warn you, we have a whole lot more questions than answers. I’m sharing our latest conversation with you as a means to open the dialog in search of practical solutions to what has now become a perpetual problem: how do we teach students to recognize fake news and biased information?

We use the same “rotating chair” format for discussion as you’ve read about in “Why Don’t They Just Talk to Each Other,” but I take a constructivist approach and the students are tasked with doing the course reading, and each week one student devises five questions which become the basis of our conversation for the night. I’ve not yet taken this approach with middle school, but I’m considering it for next year. It allows a great sense of ownership over the material that is read, as well as an interdependence in “helping out” the student whose night it is to lead the discussion. Last night, we read NPR’s “Learning to Spot Fake News: Start With A Gut Check” and’s “How to Spot Fake News.” At the center of our conversation were two questions that are worth exploring here.

Whose job is it to stop fake news?

For the first fifteen minutes of our conversation, it was bantered around quite a bit that the news organizations themselves are to blame. Can’t they just stop allowing it? Or, could we require a flag of some sort, like the satirical The Onion ? The nuances became clear though as we determined that some things are actually news stories, but they are incomplete and/or biased in a way, depending on who the news source is trying to target, in such a way that they could easily be labeled as “fake” upon a thorough examination. There was one example that kept surfacing from recent weeks: the student in the MAGA and his (perceived?) altercation with an elderly Native American man.

Students in my class referenced several explanations, and as I kept digging after class, I ended up on Collective Evolution’s article “What the ‘MAGA Hat Kid’ Story Really Teaches Us.” I wasn’t sold on it, but I was intrigued. Many of the arguments students were making were also present in the article, yet it felt fishy to me. Then, I checked out the source through to find their evaluation of the site, which rated its “conspiracy theory” level as moderate and its “Pseudo-Sci” level as quackery. Now mind you, at this point I’m down the rabbit hole for an hour, simply trying to get to the bottom of a single news story. I have a Master’s degree and nearly two decades teaching experience, so how can we expect our students to sort through this mess? With our help, of course. But how?

How can we teach students to recognize it?

The first thing we need to make clear to students is that we are actually in the middle of a really exhausting media frenzy fueled by clickbait and crazy profits for those willing to spew just about anything for a profit. In addition, our political climate has created a scenario by which real news actually sounds fake and real news is called fake! The Washington Post’s article, “Once Again, ‘Fake News’ Decried by Trump Turns Out to Be True,” is a good starting point to uncover how time is an important element in uncovering what is actually real and what isn’t. The 24 hour news cycle, replete with pop up ads taunting viewers, does not help the instant gratification of clicking on the next thing, only to discover days later that something isn’t true. This has not been the way news has traditionally operated, nor should it become the new normal.

However, as we are living in this ambiguity, we need to give over the appropriate time and attention to muddling through these news events together. ShareMyLesson has excellent guidance on how to approach the “Covington Catholic Incident Through a Media Literacy Lens.” Another news story that also came up in our discussion is the Governor Northam blackface situation, and this resource is very helpful. The “Today’s News, Tomorrow’s Lesson” section of the website is a perfect direction for my soon-to-be teachers to utilize when students are seeking answers to the questions of the day.

At the end of class, as a means to wrap up, I always review the notes I’ve jotted down. As I warned you, this class raised more questions than it answered, but I did have one comment that seems to capture the essence of the fake news dilemma: students today are inundated with so much information, it is harder than ever for them to know what they don’t know. How can we begin to help them with this situation? I’d love to begin a dialog about this, so please jump in the conversation!