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Media Literacy

Battling Fake News in the Classroom

See how one educator helps students develop media literacy—a critical 21st-century skill.
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In this post-election period, there has been a lot of discussion about fake news, particularly about how it is spread and shared online, and whether it influenced the recent presidential election. On November 22, Stanford University released an influential study showing that middle and high school students—and even some in college—have trouble distinguishing which online resources are credible. The inescapable fact is that young people need to be prepared for the Wild West of information that they live in and will grow up in. It is also imperative that we, as educators, prepare young people for the important job of responsible and informed citizenship.

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Media Literacy and “Crap Detection”

Teaching media literacy is not new, but with the explosion of social media and the lightning speeds at which information is shared, critical evaluation skills have never been more important. Howard Rheingold, who has been on the forefront of media literacy since the 1990s, coined the term crap detection as a way to describe the necessary skills needed to consume media of any kind. Similarly, Renee Hobbs, the founder of the Media Education Lab, has been advocating for media literacy for over a decade.

Hobbs and Rheingold share the view that the ability to effectively analyze digital media is a vital 21st-century skill. Back in 2009, Rheingold said, “Unless a great many people learn the basics of online crap detection and begin applying their critical faculties en masse and very soon, I fear for the future of the internet as a useful source of credible news, medical advice, financial information, educational resources, [and] scholarly and scientific research.” Seven years later, this fear is getting closer to becoming a reality.

The Role of Educators

So how can educators address this emerging crisis in digital literacy? As digital technology becomes more integral to 21st-century classrooms, educators now have no choice but to teach these crap detection skills. While the idea of teaching yet one more thing can feel overwhelming, it can be surprisingly easy to incorporate these skills in even a simple class assignment. What can be overwhelming is the seemingly endless list of places that students can come across fake news or biased information disguised as news and the seemingly endless ways that it can be presented. The best educators can do is teach young people to be critical of everything they read and to take the time to cross-check what they find. There are also simple lessons that teach kids how to easily pick out ads and sponsored content by just looking for visual cues.

Crap Detection in the Elementary Classroom

It’s never too early to teach media literacy skills. Teachers can start in the first or second grade with a simple activity where students look at a home page and pick out the ads. For example, elementary school students can look at a site that they may already be using, like Coolmath.com, and identify the ads as distinct from the content. This simple task will help them start to visually discriminate between what is actual content on a site and what is an ad. A teacher can also use this opportunity to help students understand what ads are and why they exist. You can also ask students what they think the ads are trying to sell, and why a company might choose to advertise on this site instead of another.

In the upper elementary grades, a teacher can provide students with links to both real and fake sites and give them a checklist to fill out for each site, and then have students decide which one is more trustworthy and why. Great sites for this activity are The Tree Octopus and All About Explorers. Sample questions can come from these sites, though if you are working with elementary students, you may not want to use the metaphor of crap detection (or the CRAP acronym from media literacy circles) to help them remember. In that case, there is also the CARS acronym, which has similar questions. Teachers should also have students create a list of trusted sites and ensure that they look for the same information on two or more of these trusted sites to verify the validity of the information.

Crap Detection in the Middle and High School Classroom

In a middle or high school classroom, it may be more acceptable to use the CRAP acronym. An activity with a checklist like the one above can be helpful. A site that is a real stumper is DHMO.org. This fake information site even has its own Snopes page. As students delve into more independent research that may also be more in depth and complex, sites like Snopes.com and Politifact.com can help them sort through information they are finding to see whether what they are reading is true. This is also a good time to include discussion around opinion versus fact and to have students analyze articles for bias. For example, compare “Russian hacking and the 2016 election: What you need to know” (CNN) with “The big problem isn’t that the Russian hackers tried to influence our election—it’s more that we let them” (Salon). Too many opinion articles disguise themselves as news or are improperly shared and quoted as news. Luckily, sometimes a simple read of a URL will reveal “/opinion/,” which is a sure bet that what you are reading is biased.

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In addition, the Stanford study shared some great lessons for the classroom around analyzing tweets and social media posts. Have students view social media posts and do detective work around their validity. Sadly, the study found that many of the students who were asked to analyze a tweet that had an embedded image never even clicked on the link in the tweet. Believe it or not, having middle and high school students identify ads on web pages is also an important skill, as is identifying sponsored content and articles that are fluff written to simply draw readers to a site that sells ad space. Sometimes these can be discerned by a simple visual cue, but sometimes interpreting them requires a deeper reading and comparison of information across multiple sites.

What’s Next?

Over the last decade, we’ve seen an explosion of resources to support educators in ensuring high-quality technology integration across the curriculum. We will likely see this happen with media literacy as well. Just as technology-infused instruction has moved out of the computer lab, we will see media literacy begin to move across the curriculum, especially as teachers rely more and more on online resources and the access that students have to the internet for information. While this could be seen as a burden at first, it is a vital part of educating young people to be responsible and informed citizens.

How have you been helping your students deepen their media literacy skills? Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments section below.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Perfect timing, Mary Beth! My colleagues and I are collecting resources to use in the new year to help our students be more critical media consumers. Yours will be added to our list.

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

I think that there is so much out there that it isn't really enough to just create critical thinkers. Students need to learn about twitter bots and the Facebook echo chamber and how people falsify photos... it is overwhelming for sure. I created a lesson plan that goes through a lot of the details. You can check out the free introductory "quiz" here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Critical-Thinking-Test-Curre...
Of course, I also still want my students to be critical thinkers who question everything!

M Shafer's picture
M Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Your post got me thinking. I had a great conversation with a colleague and did my first lesson with my class today. In addition to looking for ads on a page, we watched this video: https://www.brainpop.com/english/writing/onlinesources/. Then kids used QR codes with iPads to view three sites, two of which were fake and one that was real. Their job was to find the real one. They had some great observations and most were able to find the real site. Thanks!

Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Principal | Achievement Consultant | Literacy Specialist

Media literacy is a two-pronged learning standard that requires a multifaceted approach to teaching. On the one hand, we must approach the text through the lens of digital literacy as its own genre but also through the lenses of traditional literary genres. @drkendrastrange
Dr. Kendra Strange-Shaffer

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Awesome, thanks for sharing your experience, M Shafer! They are great conversations :)

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