How to teach the art of spotting fake news

My biggest teaching challenge last fall wasn’t how to hold the smartphone to get the right video (horizontally!). It wasn’t anything to do with AP Style or correct grammar or the active voice (although that was a big headache). It was just this: How to recognize real news gathered by real journalists that tells the true story.

Fake news has been called one of the biggest threats to journalism today. Even as news professionals, some of us have been misled by these stories. But how about those with only a passing knowledge of journalism? Like the college students I teach.

Let me be very clear. They aren’t stupid. They just don’t know how to separate truth from made up. Why our society has lost that ability is subject to lots of debate… but the point of this column is to discuss how I have set about teaching people how to make the distinction.

We may think millennials only care about celebrities and sports. But this fall showed me a group of students who wanted to talk intelligently about the election as well as about the crisis in Syria. The problems we encountered during those discussions were that some of their information was, well, fake. Factually wrong. So my first challenge was to help them realize that just because a source calls itself “news” does NOT mean it is journalism. We discussed journalism and ethics (using RTDNA’s Code of Ethics as the baseline). We talked about all the things we really WANT to believe are true versus what is actually a fact, and how we have a tendency to only look at information we already agree with.

So I challenged the students to go past their usual sources. Seek out information from news websites they hadn’t consulted before. Consider other points of view. Figure out where the facts diverge in stories from different organizations and use that as the starting point to find the truth. Realize that they won’t always like what the facts or truth turn out to be, but that’s no reason to immediately label them lies. We also examined, line by line, how stories were written. How did a verb or adjective impact the tone of the story? Was there hidden bias that made the listener or reader perceive the information in a positive or negative way? Who wrote the article and where was it broadcast or published? And perhaps the most important question: What were their own biases that might make it easy for them to believe without verifying?

I urged them not to accept anything at face value. Some thought that made me jaded and cynical. They may be right. (Probably.) But facts are too important to take lightly. Carl Bernstein called journalism “the best obtainable version of the truth.” I tell my students to make the effort to obtain the truth. Because if they don’t do it, who will?

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