Author - Julie Smith

Teaching Truth in an Age of Misinformation and Fake News

Studies show that Americans are now spending up to eleven hours per day with electronic mass media. (source) While media content is not always produced to educate us, much of it does indeed educate our students about the world around them. How do we teach truth, then, when information travels at the speed of light regardless of its accuracy?

Fake news, propaganda and misinformation have been around forever. The difference now is its sheer volume, our ability to create it ourselves and our preference of our beliefs over facts. It’s more important than ever to give our students critical thinking skills so they can evaluate the deluge of information at their fingertips.

So how do we begin? Our students must continually ask themselves about the source of messages. In his book “I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works”, tech writer Nick Bilton claims that our students can no longer distinguish between material produced by the Washington Post or CNN and material produced by Joe down the street. The democratization of online content creation may have leveled the playing field for producers, but the playing field does not easily recognize or label misinformation. That filtering is now our responsibility.

It’s also important to recognize what our students consider “news” and “newsworthy”. When I grew up, Walter Cronkite was one of three sources of news on evening television. Our students have thousands of choices for information gathering, and that information is not typically delivered by men on television programs. Information is a meme. A tweet. A post. A viral video. While many times these can indeed include true information, our students must get into the habit of determining what is real, meaningful and valid.

Perhaps the most challenging part of teaching truth is the inability for many of us to recognize our own biases and predispositions to certain sources and facts. In my media literacy classes, I specifically showed examples from both Trump and Clinton last semester. However, my students simply refused to believe anything negative about the candidate they favored. One student said “I want this to be false, so I’m going to ignore it”. How do we teach truth in a world where our beliefs will trump any facts we encounter?

Teachers have an uphill battle when it comes to information literacy. Thankfully, there are some excellent sources to help us navigate this minefield. In no particular order, I suggest the following:

  • Snopes: This is the granddaddy of all fact-checking sites. They are especially good at pointing out when old photos are re-purposed as memes created to promote a political idea.
  • Emergent: This site handles rumors in real time. So if something goes viral this morning, Emergent will have its analysis up this afternoon.
  • Hoax-Slayer: What I love about Hoax Slayer is that they have all of their misinformation categorized by type: memes, emails, trends. It’s extremely easy to search.
  • News Literacy Project:  This site is chock-full of lesson plans and ideas for helping students view news with a critical eye. Check it out.
  • Poynter Institute Fact Checking: This site is the home of the International Fact Checking Network. One can spend hours here.

I teach college students, which means I have a bit more flexibility than a typical K-12 teacher. Which is why I don’t necessarily suggest these sites for your classroom, I merely want you to know they exist in case you feel adventurous or want to investigate on your own.

I have actually assigned my students to create fake news. Why? Because once they create something false, and see how easy it is to do, they will never consume news in the same way again.

  • News Jack: Enter the URL of any news site, and then start editing. Take a screenshot, and you suddenly have the New York Times (or any other source) showing your material.
  • Twerker App: This app will give you the mobile version of any news site’s URL that you enter. Simply double-tap a photo or story, and enter in your own information. Screenshot it and now you have a legit-looking source telling your story.
  • Break Your Own News: A super fun site that lets you upload a photo and description so that it looks like a television breaking news story.
  • Make Your Own Prank: This site will generate a fake news story you’ve created and put it in ready-to-share Facebook news format.

News and information literacy is a 21st Century survival skill. Our students need it. Heck, my older relatives need it! But we cannot wait any longer. Our democracy depends on it.

Julie Smith is the author of Master the Media and has been teaching media lit at Webster University in St Louis for fifteen years. She travels nationally and internationally to speak to parents, teachers and students about how to live and teach in this digital world.

Media Literacy 101

Part 3 of 5 in a series by CUE guest blog editor Doug Robertson

Brain connectivity, vector illustrationStudies have shown that by 2015, the average American will consume over fifteen hours of media each day, not counting work time. This sounds impossible, but media researchers count the times that we are actually using more than one medium at a time. You might be reading this post in front of the television or while listening to music – double media usage! If only our sleep could be as productive.

Media themselves (“media” is actually the plural form of the word “medium”) are neither good nor bad, they’re just tools like anything else. But when we are spending so much time with them, they deserve to be studied, analyzed and scrutinized. How is all this media usage affecting us? How is it affecting students?

The term “media literacy” has been around for years, with various definitions. Most of the definitions include the words “analyze”, “critique” and “evaluate” – and with the emphasis on critical thinking in today’s schools, who could argue with those verbs? I’ve heard media literacy be described as “trying to teach the fish that water exists”.  How do you make kids aware of the role that the media play in their lives? They constantly swim in this water of media messages.  What are they learning?They are learning about politics, relationships, marriage, education, love, friendship, health, identity, and consumerism. They learn about wars, riots, protests, and debate. They learn about love, sex, marriage and, divorce. They learn what it means to be handsome, beautiful, and successful. They learn about products that will fix their implied inadequacies and they discover inadequacies they didn’t know they had.

But they also see victories, celebrations, sportsmanship, talent, and citizenship. They see inspiring heroes, athletes, and characters. Media expose them to people and countries and situations that they might never experience in person. To claim that the media are harmful is a gross over-generalization.

Little computer genius with a tabletYet to claim that media should not be analyzed is a mistake.

Fifteen hours of daily consumption most surely has an impact. Even though many media productions are created specifically to entertain, they do educate us as well. And they don’t always educate us accurately.

Thousands of studies have been done about the relationship between media consumption and our perceptions of “reality”. But anyone can tell you stories that require no research: the student who thinks everyone in Africa lives in a hut or the friend who shares an obviously-doctored photo on social media.  We are reared and educated in a mediated world.

There are issues with our mass media this is true. Researchers will tell you that too much media consumption can lead to obesity, lower school achievement, aggression, and even rudeness.

But we cannot change the messages of the media. They enjoy First Amendment protection, along with the senders of those messages. The obvious way to avoid any potentially negative effects of the “big bad media” is to become media literate and educate the receivers of the messages.

When I tell people that I teach media literacy, many assume that means that I am very anti-media. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I explain it this way: a food critic doesn’t hate food. In fact, a food critic has a great appreciation for food. But a food critic examines how the product is produced and presented. The taste, color, smell, and texture of the food is important. A food critic can appreciate a wonderful meal for all of those reasons. But a food critic might also notice deficiencies in the dish that others might not.  Being media literate doesn’t mean you hate the media. It means you analyze its production, presentation, effect and yes, its “taste”. It means loving something and at the same time wanting it to be better.

According to the National Association for Media Literacy Education, media literacy means more than just being aware of the media around us. We need to analyze and evaluate these messages.  Critique them.

Media literacy also accepts that media messages play a huge role in our socialization and culture. Who are the storytellers in our society today? What effects do they have?

im internet suchenThe idea of being “media literate” is one that is hard to debate. In fact, media literacy courses are required in many countries including Canada. Media literacy has had a tougher road in the United States, however. Although many can agree on its importance, there is no consensus on where or when or how it should be taught.  School schedules are already full. we really going to ask teachers to do one more thing?

Using media literacy in the classroom does not mean a teacher shows a YouTube clip or has iPads. It must go deeper. The next generation needs to know some context behind all the media they consume. What’s the history? Who’s creating these messages? Who makes money from these messages? How are they involved in the process? What is the point of view of the message?

The road to media literacy can begin anywhere – not just the school library or a classroom.  Simple questions can help a student or child not only become aware of the media’s presence but its influence as well.  It’s time to make sure that all children receive this 21st century survival skill.

1. U.S. Media Consumption to Rise to 15.5 Hours a Day – Per Person by 2015

2. Core Principles of Media Literacy Education 

Julie Smith - Media Literacy 101Julie Smith has taught media courses at the university level for fifteen years.  Lately, she’s been doing media literacy and social media workshops for parents, teachers and conferences around the country. An advocate for media and digital literacy, you can find her lurking on Twitter at @julnilsmith or at the store buying more milk for her three teenage sons. She is the author of “Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World“.