Teaching in a 'fake news' world

In Rachel Steil’s newspaper class at Stillwater High School, she teaches them about writing and editing, taking photos and doing layout. But she also spends a lot of time on news literacy.

“Even if these kids aren’t going into journalism, I need them to be savvy consumers of media,” Steil said.

Steil’s colleague in the Stillwater English department, Peter Schield, uses that same philosophy when it comes to his senior classes’ research projects.

“When I was in college and graduate school, how we did research was time consuming. These kids have the world at their fingertips,” Schield said. “But we teach them the same kind of stuff—looking at the timeliness of sources or what else the author has published. The benchmarks of what makes a source credible hasn’t really changed.”

Steil and Schield aren’t alone in navigating the ever-expanding digital world that doesn’t always focus on truthfulness. Curriculum in classrooms and databases in libraries in schools and campuses have had to adapt to how we consume information and view news.

A 2016 study from Sanford University found that middle and high school students have a hard time identifying sources of online information and distinguishing real news from fake, even though they have grown up using technology and the Internet.

“When I first taught (research papers) in 1994, source options were limited to what was available at the library. My students could choose from our collection of books, a few shelves of magazines, and four rusty file cabinets containing newspaper articles that the librarian had clipped and organized by topic,” said Edina High School English teacher Jackie Roehl. “In the decades since, so much has changed when it comes to teaching students how to find credible sources for their research papers. It is essential, now more than ever, for teachers to develop strategies to help students sort fact from fiction online.”

Steil’s newspaper class is a part of Stillwater’s English department. Students are able to get a newspaper and an English credit in the same course.

“The first month, we just go through what is news,” she said. “It’s more than just taking out your cell, snapping a photo and sharing a post.”

Students’ social media platforms are a good entrance into the topic of opinion writing, though, Steil said.
“They are reading so much content every day. They are seeing a large volume of words. But they aren’t reading news,” she said. “They are writing down stuff on social media, which has opinion in it. It’s hard for them to even see that.”

Steil spends a lot of time talking about press law, the First Amendment, libel and slander.

“We also talk about it in terms of their digital footprint,” Steil said. “When you write something and one other person sees it, it can be seen as libel, defamation. You own what you say.”

Steil’s students put out six issues a year. They have an online publication, including a podcast, social media platforms and a business component for selling ads.

“The core of what we talk about is why journalism matters,” Steil said. “Understanding communications can apply to just about anything. It translates to so many things. The art of storytelling is communication.”

That understanding of communication and the world around you is what Schield and Roehl also focus on when teaching research papers.

“We spend quite a bit of time talking about plagiarism,” Schield said. “I tell them that most of you are really good kids and trustworthy, but you can unknowingly plagiarize and the consequences are still the same, whether you meant to do it or not.”

Schield and Roehl are both grateful that their school districts have invested in good databases, which contain vetted sources. But Google is still a tempting tool for some students.

“Teaching students how to sift through Google search results to find credible sources has always been a struggle for me,” said Roehl. “I have tried a variety of strategies to help guide them, such as distributing a complex decision tree containing a web of ‘if yes’ and ‘if no’ options.”

While the digital world can be difficult to navigate, there are also a lot of online tools available to help students work on becoming a better consumer of media.

Roehl was introduced to one by her daughter who now works at NewsGuard, a company formed by veteran journalists with the goal of fighting fake news and misinformation. The group rates the credibility and transparency of thousands of news and information websites based on nine journalistic standards and provides a rating in a free browser extension.

Other online resources include NewseumED.org, the Center for Media Literacy and the Center for News Literacy.

The Society of Professional Journalists also has a journalism education committee and a program if educators want to bring a local journalist into their classroom to talk with students about the profession.
Media and digital literacy resources
Society of Professional Journalists’ #Press4Education program: www.spj.org/press4education.asp
Center for Media Literacy: www.medialit.org/educator-resources
Center for News Literacy: www.centerfornewsliteracy.org
NewsGuard: www.newsguardtech.com