There’s been a concerning juxtaposition emerging over the last few years. As adolescents and young adults increasingly turn to social media for news and information, there has been a concurrent rise in the creation and widespread distribution of fake news. Much of this fake news is, not surprisingly, spread through the intricate webs of social media, like Facebook and Twitter. Students are not, however, routinely taught how to fact-check what they see and determine what is real news and what is meant to “persuade, sell, mislead, or exploit.”
Fake news has come a long way from those magazine ads that look like real articles but say “Advertisement” in tiny print on the top. Now, there are whole sites dedicated to producing and distributing fake news, and many of them have names modeled after legitimate publications. Have you ever heard of the Denver Post, a reputable local paper? What about the Denver Guardian – sneakily named but completely fake (it was recently shut down after the Post exposed it)? Do you think a fifteen-year-old could tell the difference?
A recent podcast on National Public Radio (NPR) tracked down one fake news mogul and found out some very interesting and surprising information about one of the biggest fake news distributors out there. Even though it may seem easy for some to see the red flags – the missing byline, the lack of sources, the single-outlet coverage – millions of students are currently lacking the skills they need to discern real from fake on an ever-expanding internet. And when that means that young adults show up armed at local pizzerias that happened to be the unfortunate target of a fake news virus, it’s time to think about integrating fact-checking into the K-12 curriculum.
The News Literacy Project (NLP), which partners with reputable sources like The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, and NPR, is hoping to help students change course. NLP’s education programs, including its "checkology" virtual classroom, is helping teachers, administrators, and students learn more about the rise in fake news and how to spot it. A typical three-week literacy course includes interactive lessons with journalists, student projects, and teacher-led lessons based on NLP’s curriculum. NLP believes that “knowing the standards of quality journalism empowers students as consumers and creators.” The coursework covers print, broadcast, and online reporting. Students are taught how to search for credibility, analyze primary and secondary sources, think critically about incoming information, and seek out different points of view. In the age of the echo chamber, where we typically surround ourselves with news that fits our own values and beliefs, learning to seek out valid, reputable sources that disagree with our own ideas is increasingly crucial.
We think The News Literacy Project has the right idea in mind, but talking about credibility with children can start with one discussion at the breakfast table. Consider sharing an age-appropriate article you’re reading with your pancakes and see if you can challenge your family to brainstorm why the article was written, what it hopes to achieve, and who it includes as credible sources. Then practice finding the holes, and see if you and your family can fill those holes with other credible information. Learning how to integrate lots of sources to get the full picture is a useful skill not just for reading the news, but also for navigating the complicated social world of childhood and adolescence.