A shark swimming in the floodwaters after a hurricane. Planes drenched in water up to their wings. A child abuse ring run by some of America’s most influential politicians out of a Washington, D.C pizza parlor. Viral pictures, ‘fake news’, alternative facts…where does a student go to find the truth? As a high school teacher in the age of social media, I am told weekly, even daily, about ‘facts’ that were found ‘because it was on Twitter’ or ‘my parents told me this’ or ‘well, I did see it in a photo.’ Telling real from fake news has become a daily chore for the brightest of minds, those who do consider themselves well versed in contemporary events. How does a teenager who is learning how to critically think and analyze, and let’s face it, could most likely care less about the current news stories, supposed to separate fact from fiction, the truth from the half truths?
In recent years, America (and the world) has finally realized that fake news is an issue that must be addressed. With the development of the 24 hour news cycle and the creation of news channels that cater exclusively to a particular ideology, facts got lost behind rhetoric and sensationalism. With the proliferation of the internet and social media, fake news exploded and became a tool not only for the powerful but for the powerless. As people realized they could make money or gain followers from adhering to a particular point of view, being outlandish or shocking, or simply lying, news feeds became clogged with fake news and scams spread by midwestern grandmothers, rural NRA members and urban college students.
As a teacher, I want to ensure that my students leave with the skills necessary to tell fact from fiction, the real from the fake. And let me tell you, it gets harder and more difficult every year. I encourage my students to find and solely utilize non-biased resources in their research and my hope is those skills will translate to their private research as well. However, students use whatever is most readily available to them and those are not sources like the New York Times or Washington Post. Students today believe they need to be constantly entertained and will tune in when when something is salacious or viral. They can name all the Kardashians more readily than the judges on The Supreme Court.
This year I have made it my goal to explore these concerns more in depth and to include multiple opportunities for students to evaluate and analyze bias and point of view in messages across media platforms. It is evident that people are turning away from traditional types of news sources, such as newspapers and magazines, and relying more heavily on online content for news. It is essential that students understand where to find truthful, factual, unbiased media content. From personal research, I know I am far from the only teacher struggling with this, as evidenced by numerous articles (from reputable sources!) such as the Washington Post. I hope to engage my students in discussion and research that will allow them to critically consume appropriate information and analyze the impact of values and points of view that are presented in media messages. Beginning next week, I will be introducing them to locating reliable sources. Simply by looking at and analyzing photographs of contemporary news stories from credible sites, I hope to provide them the initial framework to explore independently. Fortunately, many teachers and news sites have discovered this crisis and responded accordingly. Lessons from NPR, Education World and Annenberg Classroom are a few of the lessons and sites I will be sharing with my students over the coming school year.
I am aware that like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill, I took on a task that will involve the potential for tremendous failure but also tremendous growth. My hope is that the failure will lead to growth and that in the long term my students will benefit from those early failures.