On an unusually warm Tuesday in February, students settle in to a classroom at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., for their Comm 203 class. Professor Beth Jannery, director of the school’s journalism program, asks students about current events they’ve been following. What have they researched about stories they have read or seen or heard? What stories seemed accurate and balanced? What stories might have misled them or omitted important information?
Tisha Herrera, a sophomore at the back of the classroom, raises her hand and says she saw an online article about the assassination of President Trump. It included a photo of an assassin being carried off with a knife. But when Herrera searched out other sources to confirm the story, she says, she realized she had been fooled by fictionalized “news.”
Students nod and murmur in response. Dineo Moja, a junior, mentions the television interview in which Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, referred to a massacre that never happened and later said she had misspoken. That, Moja says, made her wonder if Conway’s choice of words during the interview was a mistake or a deliberate attempt to spread misinformation.
Fake news existed long before the 2016 presidential race, in which falsehoods and conspiracy theories played major roles. But “this election has set off alarm bells,” says Howard Schneider, executive director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy.
As a result, he says, there has been a reawakening of interest in teaching media literacy at colleges and universities. Professors interviewed for this story are teaching students not just to identify “fake news” (a label previously reserved for hoaxes), but to detect bias, missing points of view, misleading slants and economic influences. “We taught everybody to read after we had the printing press,” Schneider says. “And now we have to teach everybody these information-vetting skills.”
But, he adds, while college students should be skeptical, critical and probing when it comes to news, they should not be dismissive.
“The greatest danger for college students and even for non-college students,” he says, “is not that they will be fooled by fake news, but that they are beginning to doubt real news.”
According to Julie Smith, author of “Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World” and an adjunct professor at Webster University near St. Louis,learning to discern what is meaningful, balanced and accurate in this world filled with constant information flow is a 21st-century survival skill for college students. [See tips below.]
“Information affects our worldviews and how we see each other,” Smith says. “We have to be able to distinguish what is valid and what is not or we’re doomed.”
A 2016 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education concluded that while young people today may be the first generation of digital natives, they struggle to differentiate between real and fake news.
“They can use digital technology, but they have terrible skills at judging what information is reliable and what is not reliable,” Schneider says. “And it’s becoming more and more dangerous.”
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Some college professors say the stereotypes of millennials as lazy or unwilling to dig for information are unfair. Smith says that millennials aren’t the only ones getting news through social media and that older consumers of media are also guilty of believing or sharing stories without proper vetting.
Katherine Fry, a professor of media studies and chair of Brooklyn College’s Department of Radio and Television, believes that the scapegoating of millennials relates to cultural anxiety that comes with change.
“This fake-news moment that we’re living in right now is just the latest incarnation of our fear of the digital environment as a culture,” she says. “It’s not fair to be pointing to young people when it’s something we should all be concerned and mindful about. It’s much more complicated than most people think.”
At George Mason, Jannery encourages her students to “become fact-checkers, truth-speakers, and to question everything,” she says. Otherwise, she says, they tend to depend on news feeds in their smartphone apps for their information, rarely questioning the content and relying on Google as a “big clearinghouse of credible information.”
“I challenge them,” Jannery says, “and they get uncomfortable, and then they get fired up.”
One lesson students learn at Brooklyn College is that it’s dangerous to look at news as only “real” or “fake,” because that sets up consumers to believe anything other than fake news is completely objective. To demonstrate that the term “fake news” might not even make sense, Fry and a group of colleagues hosted a game-show-style event based on the format of NPR’s “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” in March. Students, faculty and staff gathered in the school’s Woody Tanger Auditorium to vote on which of a selection of news stories was “fake.” In some cases, the “news” was more obviously suspect — such as an online story from early March about Germany warning citizens about travel to Sweden because of a terrorist threat in February. In other examples, such as several stories from major news organizations that contained only partial information, perhaps all could have been considered “fake.”
The idea behind the game, Fry says, is to use each news item as a jumping-off point to encourage students to make a deeper assessment of the media they consume.
In his classroom at UCLA this spring, Jeff Shareteaches his students — all current or future teachers in the university’s education program — to apply the concept of triangulation to the news by searching out multiple sources and points of view to arrive as close as possible to the truth.
Share, a former photojournalist and teacher who has spent nearly 20 years teaching media literacy, cites the example of climate change. “There are people out there who say climate change is fake or not caused by humans,” he says. “But if you triangulate the data from multiple sources, you quickly realize that the vast majority of scientists — in the government, from all around the world — are saying that climate change is very real and humans are contributing to it. The notion of denying climate change is really a very ignorant thing that shows you haven’t looked at different sources.”
To explore bias and objectivity further, Share’s students experiment in the classroom with photography, shooting pictures from different positions to observe how shifting angles — or changes in lighting, composition and other photography techniques — can alter an image. As students start to recognize the potential for bias in photographs, they learn to read images more critically.
“As humans we’re subjective. We can’t help it,” Share says. “I tell my students it’s important to try to be objective and try to be balanced, but it’s really important that we recognize that nobody really ever is.”
In winter, Webster University’sSmith felt a sense of urgency as she planned for the coming semester. She usually spends two weeks focusing on news in her 16-week media literacy class, which encourages critical thinking about mass media and how it functions. But this semester, she will spend eight weeks on news literacy. One exercise in her classroom involves picking apart Twitter posts — both tweets from verified users that contain made-up news and phony tweets published by impostors.
“So many times a student says, ‘I really want this to be true but I know it’s not.’ ” Smith says. “What’s important is that they acknowledge that they bring their own biases and are willing to learn past that and to check sources.”
Smith also assigns her students to create fake news stories. The idea is that once they have crafted a piece of media like that, she says, they’ll never consume something like it in the same way.
Tracing the ownership of media sources teaches another important lesson. Smith assigns each of the 60 students in the class a different media outlet — such as HBO, CNN or People magazine — and asks them to research what company owns it. When students realize that she’s set them up with news sources all owned by the same company (in this case Time Warner), an aha moment occurs and students realize no media is free, she says: “Our eyeballs are the product being sold.”
Fry says understanding this “secret economics of media” is especially important for college students who consider social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to be divorced from economic factors.
Since the 2016 elections, Fry has encouraged her students to consider an evolved definition of news, one that reflects how consumers affect the spread of information on algorithm-driven social media where clicks equal income for the publisher.
She also points out that this new form of distribution, in which comments, “likes” and sharing result in some stories receiving more exposure than others, has changed politics and political communications. “In the world of electronic and especially digital media, emotional responses and immediacy are so very important,” Fry says.
George Washington University’s film studies director, Kerric Harvey, says she and many of her colleagues are adding a focus on the critical consumption of media to whatever topic they teach.
Harvey has shown her students Hollywood films including “Windtalkers” and “The Last of the Mohicans” to pick apart how Americans characterize themselves in film. This is “increasingly important in terms of understanding how the world sees us and how we see ourselves,” she says.
Later in the semester, Harvey will show students films made in the Middle East, Europe and Central and South America and ask them to analyze how those outside the United States portray Americans.
“There’s always a lot of animated and often emotional discussion in this class,” Harvey says, when her students see unpleasant or unexpected portrayals of Americans. This semester, she says her students — a political mix — are having stronger reactions than usual, which she says is in reaction to the “constant and deep political struggle going on right now about what it means to be American.”
“That’s the best kind of discomfort, because real education begins with a combination of provision and disruption.”
College librarians are also hard at work on the topic. Julie Todaro, American Library Association president and the dean of library services at Austin Community College in Texas, says she got her first “fake news”-related phone call in September from a fellow librarian requesting guidance on addressing the issue. Over the past few months, her college’s library faculty has revamped tools, such as its CRAAP test, a system of source and information evaluation developed by librarians at California State University at Chico that stands for currency, relevancy, authority, accuracy and purpose.
“We flipped the message,” Todaro says. Instead of first looking into how current the news is, librarians tell students that the best place to start when evaluating a news item is to investigate the authority of the author or publisher. “Was something published by Politico or from a family-based website or a blog about the election? Was it published by The Washington Post or was it an individual’s post on Facebook?” The second most important thing these days, she says, is to look at accuracy.
At Georgetown University, the Joseph Mark Lauinger Memorial Library has developed guides to help students identify fake news. Students have also been put to work helping the library preserve scientific data online. “The point is to download and preserve scientific data from government websites so that material is protected and preserved no matter how the political winds may change,” says Ryan Johnson, the library’s head of collections, research and instruction. The underlying data needs to be protected, he says, but it also provides an exercise to help students understand how information is presented and the importance of preserving it.
At American University, librarians are ramping up their involvement in campus events, such as a recent panel on media literacy. They are also building online tools for teaching news literacy skills and specific topics such as interpreting science in the news and media ethics.
When a rally against Trump’s first immigration ban popped up on campus in February, Jannery canceled class and instructed her Comm 203 students to file a 500-word news story about the event. “She told us to make sure we talked not only to those opposing the ban but anyone who might be in favor of it,” says freshman Keirsten Robinson.
“Instead of sitting in a class, we got the opportunity to go out and practice journalism skills, like field reporting,” says Moja. The experience made her more aware of the power a journalist has to frame a story one way or another by choosing what information or quotes end up in the final piece.
Moja says her generation has the tools and the brain power to be informed citizens who demand truth. “It’s our responsibility as consumers of media to do further research and stay informed.”
Schneider wonders, however, if that may be too late to learn. By the time students are 18 or 19, he says, they may have developed emotional attachments and ideologies that make them vulnerable to the notion that they won’t accept information that challenges their own belief systems in what he calls a “tsunami of information and disinformation.”
“I’m not sure teaching college students is the answer,” he says. “I’m probably more convinced now than ever that the real solution is for every 12-year-old in America to become inoculated against fake news. Every 12-year-old needs to be news literate. That should be a mantra for our country.”
Kitson Jazynka is a freelance writer and children’s author based in Washington.
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The following actions, gleaned from experts in the field of media and news literacy, can help you weed out fake, inaccurate or biased news:
Go out of your way to confirm whether you’re reading, watching or hearing a news piece or an opinion piece.
Investigate the authority of the author or publisher responsible for what you’re reading. What was their intention? Who profited from publication of the information? Who was served? If online, is it a legitimate news source?
Check other sources to confirm the accuracy of the content and follow the story over time.
Think about what information or points of view might have been left out.
Notice creative techniques intended to attract your attention.
Seek out opposing points of view and be open to information that challenges your own biases.