“Any form of journalism you’re involved with is going to be up against a biased viewpoint and partial knowledge.” Margaret Atwood
Many of us might agree that the very nature of a news report would mean news is never objective and represents the perspective and the views of the reporter and the news organization. Yet, many people still trust that what they read/hear in the news is objective and factual.
This has become of increasing concern now that the news is not just generated by the main media corporations and news agencies but by anyone who can write and publish on the internet. Sometimes, a timely news article with an attention-grabbing headline and a shocking photograph is all it takes for it to be shared repeatedly on social media.
The American Press Institute reported in 2015 that nearly 90% of millennials get their news from Facebook and the Wall Street Journal recently reported a Stanford study finding that most students don’t know when a news article is fake.
Considering the proliferation of fake news sites like Empire News, Empire Sports, Huzlers, National Report, The Daily Current, The Wyoming Institute of Technology and World News Daily Report (source: HoaxSlayer), it is vital that we hone the ability to think critically and discern if a news item is true before sharing it on social media.
After the 2016 American election, the media was flooded with reports on how fake news had influenced the election result and consequently, the spotlight was turned onto digital literacy and whether we are equipping our students with the right skills to evaluate and critically engage with digital technologies.
So how can we incorporate such digital literacy skills in our lessons? How can we train our students to be better able to separate the wheat from the chaff? Here is a checklist of questions you can use in the classroom to help students identify whether a new site is authentic and whether a news item is fake or real.
The news site
What is the web address?
- Does it end with a .com, .edu or .org? Or does it end with .co such as ABCnews.com.co or washingtonpost.com.co? Domain names ending with .co very often look like genuine news websites to the unsuspecting reader.
- Does it have funny addresses like UnconfirmedSources.com or www.indecisionforever.com? Or slightly odd web addresses like HangTheBankers.com or NowTheEndBegins.com? Or perhaps you are looking at web addresses like EnduringVision.com or RealNewsRightNow.com and wondering why your instincts tell you that they don't sound authentic?
- The website address alone might not be enough to tell you that the site contains false or satirical news items but it can act as a signal warning you that the news might not be real.
What does the home page look like?
- Does it look credible? Does it look simplistic?
What kind of news site is it?
- In the days before news was read on the internet, there was a significant difference between broadsheet papers and tabloid papers. Are you able to tell the difference between serious news sites and the ones that focus on sensationalized gossip?
Is there any information on the site about the site?
- Check the ‘About’ page or any disclaimers stating that the news on the site is fake or satirical. Eg. The satirical news site The Onion has an About Us page that has a tongue-in-cheek tone that strongly hints at satire.
What are the other headlines like?
- Are they believable stories? Do they seem sensational? Looking at the stories on a news site should give you a feel of how serious they are and how much integrity it holds.
Is there any information on other sites about this site?
- Do a Google search of that website along with the word ‘fake’.
The news article
When was it written?
- Releasing a news story on Facebook about the Queen of England being pro-Europe just before the Brexit referendum might suggest that she is encouraging voters to vote ‘Remain’. However, when you realize that the news article was written in June 2015, a year before the referendum took place, the perception of any relevance to Brexit might completely disappear.
Who else is writing about this story?
- Check other known and reputable news websites for the same story. If it’s a big news story, it’s likely that other news sites like the Wall Street Journal, BBC, The Times, the Guardian, CNBC, etc are writing about it too.
What is their source?
- Has the news site done their own reporting of the story or are they citing another source? Is the source they are citing reliable and trustworthy? If they are citing statistics, the results of research, polls, government documents, check the links provided. Do they back up the claim? Or is there manipulation and purposeful misinterpretation of facts here?
Are the pictures/photos authentic?
- Might they have been ‘stolen’ from a totally unrelated story? Could the photos have been altered?
What is the quality of writing like?
- Is there an overuse of capital letters or exclamation marks? Are there grammatical or spelling errors in the text?
Have you performed some fact-checking?
- Use sites like www.snopes.com, politifact.com, www.FactCheck.org, Washington Post Fact Checker etc to find out if a certain viral news item is true. The BBC News has also recently announced that they will be making their fact checking service Reality Check a permanent fixture.
If you are keen to delve deeper into this subject with your students, here are some useful lesson plans that are ready for classroom use:
The International Literacy Association’s site ReadWriteThink’s Hoax or No Hoax (Strategies for Online Comprehension and Evaluation) provides multiple lesson plans where students are given opportunities to look at sample websites and consider if they are real or fake.
ADL’s Fake News and What We Can Do About It for high school students looks at what fake news is and provides students with strategies for spotting fake news.
The New York Times’s Fake News vs Real News: Determining the Reliability of Sources provides multiple tips and strategies backed with resources from Edutopia, TEDed, the Centre for News Literacy, and NewseumEd including video clips, useful examples, handy mnemonics, and plenty of discussion questions.
It is crucial that in this post-truth world, we give our students the tools to guard themselves against those who emotionally manipulate others into making important decisions that are not based on facts. After all, as Obama warns in his farewell address, it’s sometimes easier to selectively hear what we want to hear rather than admitting new information that could challenge our assumptions and promote debate.
“…increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” (Obama, 2017)