Fake News: An Old Problem Takes on a New Life

The media is a crucial part of a healthy democracy — and teachers can play an important role in helping students to be discerning with their sources.

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teachers can help combat

While the terms "fake news" and “alternative facts” may sound new, the concepts of propaganda, bias, and spin are not. The media has disseminated misinformation since practically the conception of the printing press. Throughout history, political parties have used media outlets as an extension of their strategies. Motives have not changed, but technology has.

"It's important to teach students the value of the media in a democratic society."

It's important to teach students the value of the media in a democratic society. The media shines a light on the actions (or inactions) of our government. Without media, citizens would have to trust information provided by the government. With media, citizens get a wide range of views on the state of our nation and our world. The media has the potential to make us informed voters who can make decisions with clear eyes. However, students also need to know that the media can distort.

In some ways, our job as teachers is the same as its always been: we teach students to look for and identify bias and the author’s purpose. We ask students to explore multiple sources before they draw conclusions.

The biggest difference that our students now face with today’s media landscape is the omnipresence of news through the internet and social media.

Just a few years ago, interested parties needed to seek out news by purchasing a paper or tuning in to the right channel. Today news has woven its way into social platforms and every corner of the internet. Our students see news stories even when they don’t want to.

News embedded in social media also enables a “headlines only” approach. Students who are not interested in the news will still see and absorb a headline as they scroll through a Facebook feed, even if they won’t necessarily click on the link. This means that they internalize potentially false messages without seeing the website full of red flags. I’ve had students enter my classroom with questions about headlines that are clearly inaccurate, and it is obvious that the students did not follow up to verify what they read.

Here are four strategies I use to help my students identify "fake news."

1. Use T.R.A.P.

I like to give my students a checklist with this acronym to evaluate both print and online sources.

  • T stands for “Timeliness.”

    Is the source current? If not, is there a more current source students could use instead? I do explain to students that when talking about historical events, these criteria don't apply because you want to include primary sources in your research.

  • R stands for “Reliability.”

    Reliability can be determined by looking at which experts are cited or quoted within the article. An article with no sources is far less reliable than an article that cites several reputable ones.

  • A stands for “Authority.”

    Authority can be determined by looking at the website or newspaper’s reputation and the author’s qualifications. Is the writer an expert on the topic, or are they just a regular person with access to the internet?

  • P stands for “Purpose.”

    This can be determined by identifying if the article uses informative or persuasive style, and by looking for overt or hidden biases.

2. Show real examples

When teaching about source evaluation, I like to pull up a range of websites on my smartboard. I’ll scroll through and ask students to make observations before assessing using T.R.A.P.

The specific “look” of an unreliable website becomes clear only by viewing them. After a certain amount of examples, students are able to recognize clues that tip them off.

3. Question every source

It’s important that you don’t just teach source evaluation once — it should be embedded in your teaching practice. Every time students confront a new source, even one you chose for them, ask them to consider its legitimacy. Ask them to use TRAP and state if they believe the source is trustworthy.

4. Always corroborate

Again, embed source evaluation into your practice. When studying a new topic, consistently provide students with multiple sources. Ask them to verify the information by comparing it. Can the information be corroborated across sources? Then it is more likely to be trustworthy.

My hope is that these strategies will encourage students not to believe any headline without further exploration. Over time, students ideally will internalize these practices and bring them in into their outside lives.

How do you approach "fake news" and teaching students how to be discerning with their sources? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Author Bio:

Nicole Nicholas is a urban public school teacher who is passionate about designing curriculum that is rigorous, engaging, inquiry driven and socially conscious. She loves learning about and discussing creative ways to support and differentiate for students with a wide spectrum of needs.

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