The Parent & Educator Guide to Media Literacy & Fake News


By Kerry Gallagher, JD and Larry Magid, Ed.D 

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We hear a lot about “fake news,” but that term, which was coined fairly recently, is really a symptom of much larger problems, including the lack of media literacy. In fact, Stanford Graduate School of Education recently found that more than 80% of middle and high school students surveyed were unable to distinguish between advertisements and real news stories. As parents and educators, it’s our job to help our students become more savvy consumers of information. But it’s not just kids who need a lesson in media literacy. Adults do as well. A recent Pew study found that nearly a quarter of adults admit to sharing fake news in the past. Most didn’t know it was fake when they shared it.

Until fairly recently, media were concentrated in the hands of a few organizations, but now it’s all around us. In addition to the so-called “mainstream media” outlets, there are now many online blogs, podcasts and videos from a wide variety of providers from all walks of life, as well as social media where anyone can be a “citizen journalist.”  While this has created a vibrant and dynamic array of information sources, it has also made it more difficult to know which sources can be trusted. So, regardless of whether you’re a media consumer, media creator or both — the need for media literacy is greater now than ever.

And, sad to say, we can’t always trust people in authority to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” There are far too many cases where government officials and corporate leaders have been caught telling falsehoods, whether deliberately or because they were misinformed. There are also popular culture examples such as false claims about celebrity deaths and doctored photos.

In this uncertain climate, how can parents and educators help the children they care for to be critical, but not jaded, consumers of the media they encounter?

History

History is full of widely accepted falsehoods, some with disastrous outcomes, like the victims of the Salem Witch Hunt. There are plenty of internet-based rumors like the claim that the post office was about to levy a 5 cent email tax, the story that Facebook would soon charge $5.99 a month for a private account, or that people could earn $5,000 from Bill Gates simply by sharing his picture online.

Not everything that’s inaccurate is necessarily a deliberate lie. The once widely held view that the world is flat was based on what people thought they knew at the time. Without intent to deceive, a falsehood should not be considered fake news. Likewise there are examples of people simply not being able to discern entertainment or parody from reality. The Onion is an example of a parody site designed to amuse people with decidedly false information. The information is false but the intention is clearly comedic, though that might not be obvious to all who see it.

The difference between fact and opinion in the news

Both fact and opinion help shape our understandings of information. The facts are the foundation while the opinions help us determine how those facts affect the people and society we are connected with.

  • Facts: High-quality news should focus on the indisputable information needed to relay events. This includes the people involved, the places where it happened, and any additional important details and evidence.
  • Opinion: An important part of the news involves an individual’s interpretation of the meaning or impact of an event or facts. Opinion can be a specific point of view or can be meant to convince others, as long as it is clearly labeled as opinion.

Even opinion columnists and commentators should place a high value on facts and, when crafting editorials, make sure their opinions are backed up by factual evidence.

Factual reporting sometimes also includes or is supplemented by analysis, where the writer or speaker, who may be a news reporter, but could also be an academic researcher, will put the story in context, or quote experts who explain the meaning or implications of the facts. This is not the same as an opinion piece where the person is expressing a point of view. The purpose is to help the reader or viewer better understand the meaning of the facts. Though analysis may include quotes from people with different points of view, its purpose should be to explain, not to convince. Sometimes  journalists will interview “analysts” who do have a point of view or a partisan affiliation, which is OK as long as their affiliations are made clear.

Students also need to understand the difference between speculation and fact. Sometimes all the facts aren’t in, such as immediately after an attack when it’s not known whether or not it’s terrorism. Journalists have an obligation to present the facts and, while they can offer various theories as to the cause, they shouldn’t assume a cause until it’s confirmed.

Finally, it is important to point out that sometimes advertisements are designed to look like news reports, but are not. One way to recognize them is to look closely at whether the report is using the information to encourage the audience to purchase a particular product or support a candidate or cause. Sometimes they are labeled as “sponsored stories,” but sometimes it’s totally up to the reader to figure out that they’re ads, not editorial content.

Practical Tips:

  1. Share these explanations of fact and opinion with your children or students and ask them to apply these explanations to a news story that is important to them.
  2. Teachers can ask students to take a news story or an historical event and write two editorials from opposing perspectives. It could be about a bill before a legislative body, a school issue or the significance of a scientific discovery or a controversial historical event. The idea is to push them to see the same set of facts from at least two different perspectives.
  3. Point out advertisements or sponsored stories masquerading as news in social media streams or on news websites and ask children to evaluate them.

Resources

K-6 Fact and Opinion Units ReadWorks.org

Reading Like a Historian Curriculum Stanford History Education Group

Opinion vs. Analysis Canadian Broadcasting Company (Editor’s blog)

ProCon.org

How and Why to Avoid Fake News ConnectSafely

The difference between mistakes and lies

Whether the author is a professional journalist or someone posting on their social media account, knowingly publishing false information online or in print is always wrong, but recognizing intentional lying is not as simple as it might seem. There are different kinds of lies:

  • Blatant lies: Someone knowingly states a falsehood
  • Partial lies: Someone uses one fact to make unreasonable assumptions or extrapolations. The foundational fact is true, but the rest of the information is false.
  • Lies by omission: Someone knows about pertinent facts and chooses to leave them out of a report in order to sway the audience in a certain way.

Editors do make decisions about which stories to cover and facts to emphasize on the limited pages or during the limited air time available to them, but these decisions are based on what they feel is important to their audience. Without these decisions the New York Times would be thousands of pages long and evening news anchors would have to speak faster than an auctioneer. While websites can go into greater detail than print or broadcast, even they have to limit what they cover to keep the reader’s’ attention and avoid drowning readers with too much detail or too many stories.

Mistakes are not the same as lies. If a person reports false information based on an unintentional error, they should be willing to correct it as soon as the error is discovered.

It all comes down to the intent of the author. As parents and educators, we must encourage children to look past the information and consider the reliability and motivations of the source.

Practical Tips:

  1. Clearly identify the difference between mistakes and lies and be sure children and students understand.
  2. If you come across something that is falsely reported, help young learners investigate more about the source. Then ask them whether that source would have any reason to spread false information.
  3. Be sure to talk with them about the potential harm that could be caused by allowing false information to stand uncorrected.

Resources

Character Education Lesson Plans and Best Practices Character.org

Dealing with conflicting reports

Often, as new information is coming to light or even when we review hotly contested historical events, there might be conflicting reports by different sources. For instance, when learning about the Battle at Lexington and Concord, also known as the “Shot Heard Round the World,” students read first-hand accounts from witnesses who report conflicting information. When faced with this, sometimes young learners will look to adults and ask which is accurate. Adults should redirect that thinking toward examining why there might be conflicting reports in the first place. Sometimes what looks like conflicting reports or “facts” is actually two different perspectives or “sides” that need to be examined. Other times there are so-called conflicting facts because only one set of information is actually true while the other is a mistake or a lie. The tips below can help adults work with young people to figure out the difference.

Practical Tips:

  1. When faced with the reporting of conflicting facts, encourage students to take their time to develop their own understandings. Analyzing and interpreting information is not a race. Ask them:
    • How many other sources are reporting the same facts? Find corroboration.
    • Do the corroborating sources seem to be reporting other believable facts?
    • Do any of the sources or facts seem biased or skewed to favor one side?
  2. If new information comes to light that disproves a previously held opinion, be open to sharing with children that it is OK to change one’s understandings in that circumstance.
  3. In any of these conversations, be sure to stay calm. Children can feel anxious and uncertain when they are confused about information and a calm adult can help them think rationally.

Resources

Politifact

Factcheck

Snopes

Poynter Fact Checking Network (Links to numerous other checking resources)

EXPERT TIP National Association for Media Literacy Education executive director Michelle Ciulla Lipkin recommends teachers pick one story and show how it was covered by different and diverse news organizations, whether it be the New York Times, Breitbart News, Fox News, CNN or even Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”. Note how different media outlets expose or emphasize different facts or different perspectives based on who they quote in the story. Discuss how different approaches to the same story can leave the reader, viewer or listener with a different impression or interpretation of what occurred.

Emotional intelligence and media literacy

Sometimes the author or creator of a piece of media intends to appeal to the emotions of the people consuming the media. As you may know from watching, emotion can be a big part of both commercial advertising and political messaging. If you pay attention to ads from carmakers, cosmetic companies or beverage brands, you’ll notice that they are often selling a lifestyle along with their products. The way they use imaging, music and the types of people they feature in their ads impact the way we emotionally react to the ad. The same can be true with political messaging, which seeks to play on people’s emotions – both their hopes and their fears – and sometimes makes vague promises without being specific as to exactly how the candidate will affect that change.

Sometimes feelings of inadequacy or even self-loathing can be triggered by looking at magazine covers and billboards, watching unrealistic lifestyles portrayed on TV and in movies, or wishing that you were as attractive or your life was as great as others appear to be on social media. When people who are already a little insecure compare their own lives to idealized versions, it can exacerbate those insecurities.

As both children and adults, it is OK to feel these emotions as long as we recognize the media that triggered them and do not let them control us. Parents will likely experience media-triggered emotions right in front of their children, while teachers must be careful not to allow media-triggered emotions to bleed into their classroom practice. In either role, it is worthwhile to share with children how you move past those emotions and start thinking rationally.

Practical Tips:

  1. Teach children to recognize their emotions from a young age. It’s never too late to start either. Adolescents and teens sometimes need help with emotion recognition as well. Then, when media triggers emotions, they will be better equipped to recognize which information caused them to feel that way.
  2. While watching TV or browsing online with your child, point out ads that are appealing to emotion and discuss them openly.
  3. Once the emotion has been managed, engage children to think logically about how they can take action that is positive in response to that information.

Resources

Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

EXPERT TIP Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence associate director Dr. Robin Stern recommends that adults check in with your own feelings first and keep calm when talking to your children – even about a ‘charged’ piece of news. Help children to listen for facts and name their feelings. Encourage them think about how producers create media to provoke feelings in the audience. Share your own thoughts and feelings. Be prepared with activities you can do with children to help them manage emotions in order to engage in conversation. For instance, belly breathing, drawing, coloring and writing are effective regulation strategies and easy to do with your child.

Teaching kids what to do when they see falsehoods shared online

If you see something that looks like it might be incorrect, but you’re not sure, definitely don’t pass it on until you do a little research. One way to start is to highlight or copy part of the text and search to see if others have commented, verified or disputed the story.

Aside from not spreading false information, consider intervening so that others know not to spread it too. Sometimes the person who has shared the story isn’t aware that it’s likely false, so a gentle nudge might be all that’s necessary for them to either take it down or at least think a bit more critically the next time they’re tempted to pass on a questionable story.

For decades we have told students to stand up to bullying and teasing and that being a bystander is not acceptable. We need to apply this same standard to fake news and can teach how to stand up to false information without provoking more conflict. One way is by scripting comments and responses. Here are a few examples:

  • Hey, friend! A lot of people are concerned about this. It turns out that it is not an accurate story. Here is a link that explains what’s going on. Thought you’d want to know that it has been disputed. You might want to take it down so people don’t get confused.

If your learners are willing to share the truth on their own timeline or feed – and not merely in the comments responding to the posts of others – here are more examples:

  • I’ve seen many of my friends post links to websites and articles claiming _______. This post explains the truth. Let’s spread the truth together. Please share!
  • In case you’ve seen posts about ______ and have become concerned, this information will clear things up. Lots of people were confused. You’re not alone!

We can all raise the bar together. Our goal should not be to merely teach students to analyze the media they consume, but also how to create and share media that make the internet a better place. Use these strategies when you consume media and be sure to share these strategies with your students and children, too.

Closing thoughts

Our democracy depends on people’s ability to make informed decisions in the voting booth, the marketplace, and in all aspects of their personal, academic and professional lives. Often this requires analyzing the information that’s available to them and sometimes other people’s informed opinions. But one thing is for sure: It’s hard to make any type of good decision without the skills to distinguish between what is true and what is false or disputable.

We also live in a pluralistic world where people form different opinions on everything from what smartphone to buy, what’s the healthiest diet, what school to attend and so much more. Reasonable people will form different opinions on any of these subjects but, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

As parents and educators it’s our job to help young people hone their critical thinking skills so they can analyze information effectively and come to their own conclusions. It’s essential for all aspects of their lives and all decisions they will face ranging from what to buy, what media to create and how, who to form relationships with and, of course, how to vote. We should not tell them what to think, but rather should teach them how to think for themselves, based on accurate information.

Finally, we need to distinguish between healthy skepticism and unhealthy cynicism. It’s good to question media, regardless of how well established it may be, but it’s also essential to learn how to glean truth and insight from the media around us so that, together, we can develop a better understanding of our world and how to make it better.

Resources

Media Literacy Defined National Association for Media Literacy Education

What is Media Literacy? Media Literacy Now

Educator Resources and Curriculum Center for Media Literacy

Ten Questions for Fake News Detection The News Literacy Project

How and Why to Avoid Sharing Fake News ConnectSafely

Lesson Plan: How to Teach your Students about Fake News PBS NewsHour

TOP 5 QUESTIONS

1. What is media literacy and why is it important?

In short, media literacy is the ability to think critically about the information you consume and create. It includes the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, and to understand how media can sometimes be used to persuade people. Media literacy is important because it is the basis for being an informed and critical thinker in a world where technology and media are ubiquitous, helping to immunize people against undue persuasion and false information.

2. What is fake news and why do people create it?

Fake news is any information that is deliberately meant to be wholly or largely false or misleading. Motivations for creating fake news include financial gain – by getting people to click on sites so they’re exposed to advertising – or to persuade others to take an action, purchase a product, or support or oppose a cause or political candidate. Some people perpetuate fake news just for the sake of deceiving people or as a prank. Honest mistakes happen and they are not fake news. But those who publish or say something that they later find out to be untrue have an obligation to correct the record.

3. How do we explain the difference between facts and opinions?

Both fact and opinion help us understand the world around us. Facts are accurate reports of what happened or what exists, while opinions are an interpretation of the meaning or impact, usually from an individual’s perspective. It’s legitimate for an opinion to be influenced by a person’s world view, but even those who express an opinion should back them up with facts rather than inaccurate information.

4. How can you spot fake news?

Consider the source and other stories coming from that source. Do they ring true? Is the URL legitimate? Does the “news story” seem one-sided or biased toward a particular point of view? Also, consider the article’s author. Is there evidence that it’s a real person? Search for the source and author to see what else they’ve published and what others are saying about them. Sometimes you can tell if a story is true by copying a string of its text and pasting it into a search engine. Often (but not always) this will bring up sites that may dispute or confirm the story, but it may also bring up other fake news sites that repeat the story. FactCheck.org has other good tips for spotting fake news.

5. What is the right thing to do when you spot fake news?

While it’s never OK to spread fake news, it is OK to comment on links to fake stories with your own correction, to help set the record straight.