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Schools teach how to distinguish between real and fake news

12:35 AM February 15, 2017

WILLIAMSVILLE, New York—Teachers from elementary school through college are telling students how to distinguish between factual and fictional news—and why they should care that there’s a difference.

As Facebook works with The Associated Press (AP), FactCheck.org and other organizations to curb the spread of fake and misleading news on its influential network, teachers say classroom instruction can play a role in deflating the kind of “Pope endorses Trump” headlines that muddied the waters during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I think only education can solve this problem,” said Pat Winters Lauro, a professor at New Jersey’s Kean University who began teaching a course on news literacy this semester.

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Like others, Lauro has found discussions of fake news can lead to politically sensitive territory.

Some critics believe fake stories targeting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton helped Donald Trump overcome a deficit in public opinion polls, and President Trump himself has attached the label to various media outlets and unfavorable reports and polls in the first weeks of his presidency.

Politically difficult

“It hasn’t been a difficult topic to teach in terms of material because there’s so much going on out there,” Lauro said, “but it’s difficult in terms of politics because we have such a divided country and the students are divided, too, on their beliefs.”

“I’m afraid sometimes that they think I’m being political when really I’m just talking about journalistic standards for facts and verification, and they look at it like ‘Oh, you’re anti-this or -that,’” he added.

Judging what to trust was easier when the sources were clearer—magazines, newspapers or something else, said Mike Roche, a Kean senior student taking Lauro’s class.

New lessons

 

Now “it all comes through the same medium of your cell phone or your computer, so it’s very easy to blur the lines and not have a clear distinction of what’s real and what’s fake,” Roche said.

A California lawmaker last month introduced a bill seeking to require the state to add lessons on how to distinguish between real and fake news to the Grade 7-12 curriculum.

A high school government and politics teacher, Lesley Battaglia, added fake news to the usual election-season lessons on primaries and presidential debates, discussing credible sites and sources and running stories through fact-checking sites like Snopes.

There were also lessons about anonymous sources and satire. (They got a kick out of China’s dissemination of a 2012 satirical story from The Onion naming Kim Jong-un as the sexiest man alive.)

“I’m making you guys do the hard stuff that not everybody always does. They see it in a tweet and that’s enough for them,” Battaglia told her students at Williamsville South High School in suburban Buffalo.

“It’s kind of crazy,” 17-year-old student Hannah Mercer said, “to think about how much it’s affecting people and swaying their opinions.”

Future news consumers

Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy pioneered the idea of educating future news consumers, and not just journalists, a decade ago with the rise of online news.

About four in 10 Americans often get news online, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report.

Stony Brook last month partnered with the University of Hong Kong to launch a free online course.

“To me, it’s the new civics course,” Tom Boll said after wrapping up his own course on real and fake news at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.  —AP

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