“When you can’t distinguish between the truth and fake news, you have a very much more difficult time trying to solve some of the great issues that we face” (Amanpour, 2017).
The future of democracy rests on our students’ abilities to interpret and respond to the world around them effectively. Media literacy stands as a crucial pillar among the myriad of objectives we hope to achieve through our formal education systems – from life skills and reading strategies to content standards and performance frameworks. Ultimately, teaching students about media literacy is about preserving institutions of freedom and self-determination around the world.
This paper aims to demonstrate the significance of news and media literacy skills in contemporary affairs and thereby underscore the value of engaging in rich, meaningful learning experiences about news literacy skills with our students. As a case study, an example of how my students embarked on a unique media literacy instructional unit is described. Considerations for future learning and instructional opportunities are reflected upon. Finally, broader considerations for practitioners are offered to further enhance the study of news media literacy.
Impact and Context: Fake News Examples, Incentives, and Technology
The significance of these efforts is a crucial starting point to consider. No matter where they are or what topic they’re studying, our students must possess the skills to reliably decipher the sea of information they find at their fingertips. Students must carefully apply critical thinking practices in order to analyze news media content and make informed decisions accordingly. Conversely, if our students lack a robust understanding of media literacy skills, their ideas and perceptions on any number of topics can lead them toward actions that have profoundly negative effects on democratic institutions.
Consider several recent examples in the United States. In 2012, following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, fabricated claims arose within online networks and social media outlets suggesting that rogue citizens had perpetrated a fraud. Perhaps they didn’t actually have children who attended the school or, the writers alleged, the shooting didn’t actually occur at all, but rather was a false-flag or entirely fabricated event. Conspiracy theorists sent death threats to parents, forcing them not only to re-experience the trauma of losing a child, but also to begin fearing for their own physical safety (Berman, 2017).
More recently, when chatter within online communities falsely alleged that a pizza restaurant was also housing, “a vast child sex-trafficking ring,” one convinced reader took it upon himself to enter the restaurant with an AR-15 assault rifle to “rescue” the children. Several shots were fired, but luckily no one was physically harmed in the event. Upon realizing that he had been fooled, the assailant plead guilty to several crimes (Berman, 2017).
Perhaps the most prominent example in American political discourse – an issue that at the time of writing continues to be the subject of a Special Counsel investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation – is the issue of using news media to manipulate public opinion in order to influence a national election. Indeed, compelling evidence suggests that state-sponsored actions have sought to sway readers toward one political party or another – demonstrating the importance of media literacy in sustaining democratic institutions (see Confessore and Wakabayashi, 2017; Cox, 2017; Darby, 2017; Davey-Attlee and Soares, 2017; Howard et al., 2017; and Rutenberg, 2017).
In each case outlined above, misleading and manipulative information fueled misinformed actions. Certainly, additional examples have pervaded classroom activities during current events lessons or real-world discussions, causing teachers to address misconceptions or question assumptions of the original claim. Berman (2017) has documented how government officials have similarly spent substantial time and energy addressing concerns and upholding confidence in bureaucratic institutions during public dialogues about false news stories. Helping our students build deep understandings about media strategies and news literacy will hopefully limit future cases.
Unfortunately, additional context only confirms that strong incentives will continue to underwrite an endless swarm of deliberately false, so-called “fake news,” organizations, making steeper the mountain educators must help students climb. Numerous commentators have noted how lucrative the fake news business can be. Ohlheiser (2016) asserts that by selling ads on false content, writers can make thousands of dollars a month by pushing stories on Facebook. Berman (2017) shares the story of a Maryland political consultant who earned $22,000 during the 2016 American presidential campaign. At it’s height, the consultant’s website was valued at $125,000.
Davey-Attlee and Soares (2017) interviewed a young Macedonia writer using the pseudonym “Mikhail” who stated, “At 22, I was earning more than someone [in Macedonia] will ever earn in his entire life.” These stories highlight how, particularly for writers living in developing areas around the globe, there is a strong potential for financial incentives to overcome moral or ethical considerations when producing fake news media. Mikhail, a law school dropout, stated that he was using his profits to send his younger sister to school and purchase a house. So how will Mikhail and others like him respond to increased attention to fake news and media literacy? During his interview he noted, “My primary goal is to prepare a site like I was having before, to be ready for the next election in America.”
Technological advancements also exacerbate the trend by empowering the production of fake news. Indeed, Joseph Cox, a cybersecurity journalist, describes assembling a digital fake news team of up to 45,000 proxy accounts on Twitter for only $100 per week (2017). Methods to combine numerous facial images together to create a high-resolution portrait – an image of a person who doesn’t actually exist in the real world – have been fine-tuned (Shah, 2017; Karras et al., 2018). As these digital technologies continue to advance, the authenticity of visual texts and information will come into question. A team of engineers from the University of Washington have likewise developed a program that aligns former President Obama’s voice with lip-synced videos of him speaking, allowing them to create videos of Obama saying statements he didn’t necessarily say, using his own voice (Suwajanakorn, Seitz, and Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, 2016). To an untrained eye, these videos can be extremely convincing. When it comes to contemporary digital media, the old adage that “seeing is believing” no longer applies.
Anecdotally, teachers are well aware that students are not immune to misinformation and misleading information. Students often struggle to determine fact from fiction when reading, but a seminal study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) determined just how critical these challenges are (2016). SHEG researchers assessed a sampling of middle school, high school, and college students and came to particularly dismal results. One extraordinary finding noted that over 80% of students failed to determine that information was an advertisement, even when the information contained a label reading “sponsored content” within it (2016). Qualitative evidence confirmed that students believed such content was an actual news story rather than a paid advertisement. The report described student’s abilities to evaluate information as “bleak,” noting that students are “easily duped” (2016).
Even when students are able to utilize social media to access online information, their savvy in navigating social media websites often does not match their actual media literacy skills. SHEG notes, “despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information” (Stanford History Education Group, 2016). Furthermore, such skills are not randomly distributed, but tend to be favor traditionally privileged populations. Empirical evidence confirms that socioeconomic status can be a strong predicting factor in determining media literacy and using the internet in informed ways (Hargittai, 2010).
Experts don’t agree on whether these conditions will improve over time. A study by Pew Research Center (2017) canvassed over a thousand “technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers, and others” about the following issue:
“The rise of “fake news” and the proliferation of doctored narratives that are spread by humans and bots online are challenging publishers and platforms. Those trying to stop the spread of false information are working to design technical and human systems that can weed it out and minimize the ways in which bots and other schemes spread lies and misinformation. The question: In the next 10 years, will trusted methods emerge to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail in the overall information ecosystem? Or will the quality and veracity of information online deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas?”
Respondents then had to pick between one of the responses below:
“The information environment will improve – In the next 10 years, on balance, the information environment will be IMPROVED by changes that reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation online.”
“The information environment will NOT improve – In the next 10 years, on balance, the information environment will NOT BE improved by changes designed to reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation online.”
The responses were split 51% to 49%, with the majority selecting that they did not expect improvements to our environment (Pew Research Center, 2017).
The examples above demonstrate the significance of media literacy. Moving forward, more stories of misinformed actions will undoubtedly emerge. Until incentives change, the actors who are creating misleading information are here to stay. Technological developments will only exacerbate avenues for manipulation. And as our students already struggle to build and maintain media literacy skills, the future seems grim. Each illustration serves to underscore the imperative nature of teaching media literacy skills. Indeed these efforts not only benefit the private good of each individual student but also, in the longer-term, the collective, public good.
Instructional Activities: A Case Study
How ought educators respond to this environment? How can we best-prepare students to overcome such bleak circumstances? What instructional activities and educational experiences might we co-create to address these concerns? What follows is one example of an instructional unit for practitioners to consider.
The following instructional unit is designed for a secondary-level English Language Arts course in the United States. It was taught in a small-classroom setting, with a group of seven students. We had ample access to technology, though our primary digital tool was 1:1 laptops. I had originally planned a framework of activities aligned to various sets of learning standards used in the United States, though our objectives and experiences broadened as students took more ownership of the unit. All in all, we focused on our media literacy project for four weeks of class time.
To begin, I utilized the term “fake news” as a hook to lure student attention. I designed a provocative slideshow of “fake news” examples and progressed through them as my students and I discussed the perils of being tricked by misleading information. At the conclusion of the slides, I stated that we were opening a unit about media literacy and stated several objectives. In short, our goals were to determine what it meant to demonstrate media literacy, practice various media literacy tasks, and showcase our skills by creating a summative learning product that demonstrated high literacy skills.
Given the inherently political nature of “Fake news,” we next proceeded to discussing group expectations and mores. I told my students that I foresaw moments when our topics would include current events and activities that would deconstruct practices of major political parties, even those they might consider themselves to be followers of. We discussed ways to give and receive feedback that would allow them to express their views while still demonstrating respect and empathy. I noted that we were studying this because it was both a current event as well as an important collection of skills for students to master. We talked about how at some point we would undoubtedly have moments where they disagreed with their peers, and I asked them how we should handle those moments. What does it look like to respectfully disagree? What are some statements you can use to acknowledge a person’s perspective but state appropriately that your opinion differs? How can we show that we like and respect a person even if we disagree with their ideas? We practiced several examples where a student would be provided with information that contradicted one of their longstanding beliefs.
These conversations were crucial to the success of this unit. I was fortunate to have students of all political stripes in my class. The diversity of perspectives enabled us to have many back-and-forth respectful conversations about politics. One early takeaway for me was that these types of conversations don’t happen enough in schools today.
After our initial discussions, the students completed a carousel activity, which had them read a bank of articles about fake news, fact-checking, and news validity. Instead of using the hypothetical situations we discussed in the introductory section above, our discussions now focused on real world, factual, historical events. We reviewed evidence, including the Stanford History Education Group’s seminal study (2016), that demonstrated the extent many students lack news literacy skills. As we discussed the resulting implications, some students were initially skeptical and perhaps overconfident in their own abilities. But, after reading some additional examples from other articles, the class reached a verbal consensus that the recent boom of fake news was clearly a problem – both in terms of upholding journalistic integrity as well as in the demonstrated lack of student abilities. These activities established buy-in for the students. In this way, they had agreed with and helped identify the significance and rationale for our learning.
Group Instruction & Independent Activities
To build initial background information, we began with a modified version of instructional materials designed by iCivics, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. iCivics creates a multiplicity of instructional materials and games for students, including several documents on journalism, bias, and misinformation. These activities were traditional tools to build reading comprehension by asking students to review a selection of engaging information and then complete a brief written response activity to demonstrate their understanding of a news literacy concept.
Ultimately, I adapted these materials so we could use them briefly to build some common vocabulary about media literacy. Additionally, in assessing student’s answers, I quickly learned where student’s preconceived ideas about certain media topics were. As such, the iCivics materials served as a pre-assessment of student understanding, a measure of what students understood at the beginning of the unit.
Our next activity involved a mix of whole-class and independent, self-paced modules to develop news literacy skills. I utilized Checkology, an interactive program designed by The News Literacy Project to facilitate hands-on practice activities. Checkology includes four instructional modules which each contain a variety of videos and activities for students to complete. The modules teach many different skills and are titled, “Filtering News and Information,” “Exercising Civic Freedoms,” “Navigating Today’s Information Landscape,” and “How to Know What to Believe,” respectively. During this stage of instruction, my role was that of a facilitator. I assisted students to navigate the interface of Checkology and I received invaluable qualitative data as students progressed. Once students submitted work, I was able to provide individualized feedback by commenting on student’s answers and provide tips and tricks to student who needed assistance. Students received these comments as notifications within the Checkology system.
At times, we completed Checkology tutorials as a group because our conversations enriched everyone’s learning. Sometimes students completed aspects of the tutorials separately, but over time we gravitated together as everyone seemed to have similar questions as they progressed independently. Many times, we would pause our individual work on the fly to engage in whole class discussions about the tutorials. As students made connections between class content and the real world, our conversations often drifted into political commentary as we reflected on how news literacy and truthful, diligent reporting has meaningful consequences on citizenship and public opinion. On more than a few moments we found ourselves reeling the conversation back to the topic of the lesson, but never did I feel like we hadn’t taken a meaningful sidetrack. Students need practice talking about politics. Students need assistance to engage in political conversations respectfully and to complement their arguments with evidence and reason instead of merely appealing to emotions. If nothing else, we created a space for these conversations to happen.
Summative Assessment: The Birth of a Media Library
This was a new unit for me. Instead of designing a final project or writing assignment I simply asked students what we should do with all of our new understandings as we approached the end of instructional activities. Having met our initial goals of building background knowledge about what it meant to demonstrate media literacy and completing an array of practice building our news and informational literacy skills, I empowered students to create a final assessment to showcase their new skills.
One student – a kid who wasn’t even in our class but had heard about our discussions from a peer – floated the idea of creating some sort of website to list authentic, trustworthy news sources. Another student asked if, in jest, we could also include some satirical or outright “fake news” outlets, as long as they labeled them as such. Frankly, I thought this idea was clever and would test each student’s ability to locate and choose an appropriate source. Nevertheless, I asked them to refine their idea. After all, the scale and pace of digital media outlets is daunting. A stagnant list would only be accurate and of value for a short time.
After some brainstorming, one student proposed using an RSS feed to collect articles from our approved sources. An RSS feed pulls new articles from a source and aggregates that content alongside other sources within a standardized reader. For example, a few students shared their favorite RSS apps, which allowed them to read updates from some of their favorite websites all in one place (the app), without having to manually open the webpage of each site.
This initial idea quickly led students down a self-driven path. It was a moment when, as the instructor, I could feel the excitement in the room as the students recognized how they could implement their new learning into a real-world, applicable product for themselves and others.
At first, the students wanted to collect reliable news websites and aggregate their content into an RSS reader. This would allow students to demonstrate their skills and also review the information from each source on an ongoing basis. Regarding the satirical and “fake news” sources, students would know the source needed to be updated or removed if the feed stopped producing content, which addressed my initial concern.
But quickly we realized that there were access issues with this approach, as typically an RSS news aggregator is an individualized product, not something shared by a group of readers. Not only did this problem highlight an initial concern, but it also raised an important question and new line of inquiry. Students began researching how to create a public RSS feed that they could edit and others (i.e. the general public) could view on an ongoing basis. Feedly, an RSS news aggregator and reader had recently created a “shared collections” feature that allows specific feeds to be broadcast to a public website. This empowered my students to create folders of specific sources (i.e. their favorite blog, YouTube playlists, CNN, teen magazines, etc.) and broadcast their information all in one easy-to-find spot, which we branded as a school media library. This product not only far-exceeded our learning goals, but it granted students with a way to extend their learning far beyond the classroom.
Students chose topics of their interest and searched far and wide across the internet to find websites and media sources about that topic. We added trustworthy sites to specific categories of their interest (i.e. Automotive Trends, Crime News, Health & Wellness, LGBTQ*, Music, etc.) and even added some of our favorite unreliable ones to a “Satire, Fake News, & Outrage” category! We quickly built a robust library of high-quality reading sources on topics of student interest. The students recognized the power of such a project and remained engaged throughout the process. Numerous times, students floated category ideas and customized the project to appeal to their skills and interests.
The students demonstrated their skills at effectively and accurately analyzing media sources – but their curiosity didn’t stop there. The students wanted to share their learning with the rest of the school and include methods for other students to participate. To make it easier to find our media library, students learned how to create short links and QR codes, which were strategically pinned to flyers and placed around the school. To allow other students to suggest media library sources, we created a digital form and embedded it within the media library website.
One student wondered aloud how we would use the media library in the future. Aside from using it for personal reading or for finding current events articles, was there a way we could share information from the media library with others? How could the media library foster ongoing learning and school activities? Another student interjected to ask if we could clip highlights from the media library and create a school newspaper. As the discussion continued, we shifted the idea of a newspaper to a blog and quickly realized that a blog could be used to share media library information, but also for a whole range of other activities school-wide. After some searching we found the EduBlogs platform through WordPress and we began designing our space together.
All in all, students had each demonstrated mastery in a variety of media literacy skills not only through practicing the Checkology modules, but also by constructing a school media library full of reliable news sources which would be automatically updated using the digital technologies of RSS and a news aggregator site. To launch our efforts into action, the students presented the project to their peers during lunch. They explained the purpose of each component of the project and taught their friends how to contribute to the blog and media library themselves.
Before transitioning to our next unit, I asked students to briefly reflect on our experiences. Some students remarked on the plague of “fake news” in America (and across the world). A common thread in student comments noted that so many students and adults lack common sense and have very poor skills at recognizing the authenticity of digital information, whether it be memes, infographics, or articles. One student wrote about people on Facebook or other sites online that knowingly share false information saying, “They’re living a lie and it’s disgusting.”
Another student reflected on our process and stated, “This unit was meaningful to me because it contributed to bringing students together to do something positive. We made a place where everyone has a voice.” A different peer replied, “The whole class was in charge and helped form everything. It felt like we had a lot of responsibility and also more freedom to express our interests.”
Keeping The Republic: Where Do We Go From Here?
My students started with a hot topic and a small collection of supporting texts. We paired our background knowledge with an extremely well designed series of tutorials and ongoing discussions about different media sources. Throughout our time we maintained a respectful ongoing dialogue about the political implications of media literacy. Eventually we practiced our new skills by building a digital media library and school blog, all the while learning about tech tools that enhanced our communication and showcased our learning in a clean, organized manner. Students controlled the pace of this entire unit and chose the instructional activities and outcomes of over half of it. Suffice it to say I was extremely proud to step back and reflect on what the students had created and how far we had come.
But this example is only one story of how educators – and the broader public – can respond to these developments. What steps can we take to build news literacy skills and limit the spread of “fake news” media?
On the classroom front, recent findings suggest that teachers are utilizing outside resources and new-era, digitally-rich texts to create new curriculums about news literacy (Jacobson, 2017). Stanford History Education Group researchers likewise plan to create a series of videos to, “mobilize educators, policymakers, and others to address this threat to democracy” (2016). In Italian schools, the Ministry of Education is currently implementing a collaborative initiative with Google and Facebook to train students in 8,000 high schools about news literacy (Horowitz, 2017). Commenting on this effort, Laura Bononcini, chief of public policy for Facebook stated that, “education and media literacy are a crucial part of our effort to curb the spread of false news, and collaboration with schools is pivotal” (2017).
Discussing general practices for educators, Miller (2016) shares several important insights. Initially, it is crucial to confront biases and acknowledge how those beliefs influence our perceptions. Part of teaching news literacy involves deconstructing preconceived notions that students hold. Miller also notes the value in teaching students to approach news with skepticism rather than cynicism. Entering these learning activities with a proper mindset is necessary, especially for young students. Finally, he highlights the importance of teaching students about the role of algorithms in limiting access to information. In other words, an algorithm will sometimes restrict a student’s perspective by steering content that reinforces their biases. Instead, Miller suggests methods for enriching and widening our “information diets” (2016).
The wider community beyond the classroom also plays a role in combating fake news and bolstering media literacy. In the Pew Research Center study referenced above, though slightly less than half of the experts believe the “fake news” situation will improve, researchers provided a notable summary of their reasoning, stating that:
“It is…human nature to come together and fix problems: The hopeful experts in this canvassing took the view that people have always adapted to change and that this current wave of challenges will also be overcome. They noted that misinformation and bad actors have always existed but have eventually been marginalized by smart people and processes. They expect well-meaning actors will work together to find ways to enhance the information environment. They also believe better information literacy among citizens will enable people to judge the veracity of material content and eventually raise the tone of discourse” (2017).
Whenever possible, educators should work to support these efforts.
Indeed, progress is already underway. In early 2017, investors filed a shareholder resolution with Facebook asking the company to address fake news articles on the site (Sterne, 2017). Soon thereafter, Facebook introduced a new button for users to push that would provide additional contextual information on news articles (Anker et al., 2017). Though initial observations question the benefit of such a button or cautionary label, the strategy is a trend in the right direction nonetheless (see Pennycook and Rand, 2017). Following this pressure, executives from both Facebook and Twitter testified before Congress on the subject of foreign governments using those platforms to display manipulative media, and Facebook submitted over 3,000 ads to the United States Congress that were linked to or paid for by a foreign government (Shane and Isaac, 2017; Kang et al., 2017). Speculation has also rose regarding potential changes regarding political ad disclosure laws during national elections in the United States (Fischer, 2017).
These efforts are crucial to the continuation of democratic ideals around the world. Changes to benefit media literacy and reduce manipulative information are necessary at all levels of public life – from our laws and procedures to our classroom activities. In my time working on this subject with youth it has become abundantly clear that students don’t enjoy being fooled. Upon realizing their apparent misconceptions, students were highly motivated to engage in meaningful classroom activities that had resounding benefits beyond their immediate private gains. Educators and policymakers would be wise to follow their example.
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