Raising Information Detectives: Media Literacy at Home
With fake news making big headlines in recent months, are you worried about your children knowing the difference between credible and noncredible digital news and information?
According to a Stanford University research report released in November 2016, you’re right to be concerned. In assessments of over 7,800 middle school, high school, and college students in 12 states, the Stanford History Education Group found that the majority of these otherwise digitally savvy kids could not:
- distinguish between legitimate news articles and sponsored content, or so-called “native advertisements” written to resemble news stories;
- identify whether the source of a photo was reliable, its captioning accurate, and its content unaltered; or
- detect when an information source obscured its identity to serve an underlying political agenda or profit motive.
Today’s political headlines aside, parents know that the ability to discern fact from fiction can impact every aspect of their children’s lives tomorrow—from their social choices to critical health and financial decisions.
So how can parents and Learning Coaches help their students become smart information consumers?
Let’s start by …
Reframing the Conversation
Until recently, fake news was narrowly defined as “stories fabricated to intentionally deceive readers in order to drive revenue-generating ‘clicks,’ steal personal information, or incite public opinion.” However, the usage has now changed so dramatically that a Google search on the term yields more debate than clear-cut, widely accepted definition(s). Based on usage, it seems to mean “news or information that may be biased, partly or wholly false or inaccurate, or overreported.”
Rather than joining that debate, parents, educators, and students alike are better served by focusing on the ultimate weapon against so-called fake news and misleading information: media literacy.
Media literacy, as defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication. … [It] empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators[,] and active citizens.”
So the most important fake-news-related question every parent should ask first is, “Does my child’s school incorporate 21st century media skills into the curriculum?” At Connections Academy®–supported schools, for example, students in grades six through eight take Education Technology and Online Learning, a course that covers these skills, including critical thinking, research and analysis, digital citizenship, technology skills, and more. Those are the skills your child will need to spot inaccurate information or fake news—however it may be defined.
That said, here are …
Three Ways to Help Students Spot Fake, Inaccurate, or Biased News and Information
When working (or playing) on the Internet with your children at home, you can help them become smarter information consumers by encouraging them to answer three critical questions:
Who created this article or social media post?
Unfortunately, the Internet is flooded with information sources that obscure their identities to hide a profit motive or ideological agenda or to trick us into revealing personal information. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a profit or holding a particular viewpoint, your kids need to be agenda-aware to evaluate information critically.
To find out who’s behind the story, encourage your kids to:
- Check the source’s web address or URL before they click, warning them to beware of addresses ending in .com.co or lo. These are often fake sites mimicking legitimate sites with similar names.
- Read the source’s About Us page to detect how the organization is funded and whether it has a particular ideological agenda or profit motive. But also warn your kids not to take the About Us page at face value.
- Search the web for further information on the source of the post. For bylined articles, research the author to ensure that he or she has the subject matter expertise or journalistic background to write knowledgeably about the topic.
- Use WHOIS.com to identify the owner and administrator of the website, their email address(es), and the date they registered their domain.
What format or techniques were used to grab your attention?
Just because a social media post looks like a legitimate news story doesn’t mean it is a legitimate story. Even though Facebook labels news-like ads as “Sponsored Content,” only 80% of middle school students in the Stanford University study recognized that these “articles” were in fact paid advertisements. We all need to pay more attention.
To spot a bogus news article, help your students look for:
- excessive punctuation, exaggerated claims, and inflammatory language
- sensational or misleading headlines that aren’t supported by the content of the linked article (this so-called “click bait” generates revenue for the author but provides little or no value to the reader)
- grammatical errors, misspellings, or obvious factual errors
- current dates and bylines
- photos that have been misappropriated, misdated, or altered.
Not sure yourself how to spot a phony photo? Just use Google’s free reverse image search function. Also, make sure your kids are aware of social media conventions and limitations for noting verified accounts, such as the blue checkmark used by Facebook and Twitter.
Have You Been Targeted?
As we travel the Internet, we’re creating a “click” history that both well-intentioned and opportunistic parties exploit to their advantage. Using sophisticated algorithms, they use that history to target the news to our existing viewpoint and to place products that align with our interests.
This practice creates the much-discussed “echo-chamber effect” and “bubbles” that can cut our children off from understanding important information and considering differing viewpoints.
To ensure your children are getting a well-balanced mix of news and information, you can encourage them to:
- Read laterally, checking whether a “hot topic” is being covered across various media outlets. If a story is only showing up on one site, it could be a late-breaking story—or it could be fake, biased, or overreported.
- Cross-check quotations with other sources. In fake news stories, quotations are often shortened or framed to support a particular conclusion.
- Follow links to the primary sources cited to ensure they “match” the news summary—asking, for example, “Does this blog post accurately represent the gist of the cited Stanford study?”
More Resources for Parents
We know this is a lot to cover, and frankly it’s only the tip of the iceberg. For more on fake news, media literacy, and fact-checking, check out these sites:
Your efforts are sure to be rewarded when your child grows up to be a well-informed and media-savvy adult!
Has your student ever been fooled by a fake news story? How do you help your kids spot questionable news and information? Share your tips in the comments below.