Students learning to discern real from fake news

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During the 2016 election year, there was a great deal of discussion about the dissemination of information and news. As sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram became public arenas for news as much as for selfies and pictures of plates of food, it could be difficult to determine the accuracy of a story as online sites boasted exaggerated headlines or called out candidates for something they had, or had not, done.

In the Internet age, where information is available at the click of a button, where everything goes viral, and news is spreading like wildfire, adults and today's technology-savvy youth are subjected to it all. How does one determine what is real news and what is fake news, and how are our students learning to discern one from another? If something is found online, does that automatically make it true? Students need to know how to make that determination and how to find valid, reliable sources for their research, a skill better known as media literacy.

Media literacy is defined by the Center for Media Literacy (CML) as a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms, from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

The need for an increased focus on media literacy skills only emphasizes the ever-important role of librarians in today's society as well as the need for the funding of full-time librarians both at the local level and in the schools, given the neverending supply of information at one's fingertips. The effect of misinformation, unreliable sources and fake news is often seen as a classroom crisis, with students unable to make the distinction between real news and fake, valid sources and not. Even at the college level, schools are struggling to help their students strengthen their media literacy skills, providing them resources for determining what's real and what's fake, when it comes to news and sources. The Indiana East Campus Library website, for example, dedicates an entire page to that goal, providing students with tips and checklists for their fact-checking needs (iue.libguides.com/fakenews).

In the Cranston Public Schools, Library Program Supervisor and Chester Barrows Elementary School librarian Susan Rose notes that fake news is not a new phenomenon. The CPS school librarians have always worked media literacy skills into everyday teaching.

“This has always been embedded in what we already do, teaching the students that they need to always be checking sources and resources for validity,” said Heidi Blais, Cranston High School East librarian. “Even given current events, this is not a new practice for us. My school LibGuide has resources that have been validated for our students that they can go to for their research.”

At Park View Middle School, librarian Stephanie Mills agrees.

“I always create LibGuides’ which hold database articles, World Book articles, links to other pre-approved information, and we discuss how I do not allow Google as a means of research. Many students think Google is a source; they do not understand it’s a search engine, not a true source of information,” Mills said. “I find Google results to be too cumbersome and students don't have a ton of time to sift through hundreds if not thousands of results.”

Mills and her colleagues work to help their students utilize databases such as ASKRI.org or subscription services such as the EBSCO database.

“We are helping to narrow down their results while making sure the results they do receive are quality, vetted information,” Mills said.

Cranston High School West librarian Susan Evje agrees that the issue of unreliable sources is always brought up during research lessons when discussing resources for assignments, but says that she plans to speak on the topic of fake news in an upcoming lesson.

“Now, with all the emphasis on fake news, I am planning on doing a lesson on this very topic with my next advisory class,” Evje said.

She also plans to give her students an online quiz about fake news to see how they fare. In 2017 Evje also will be approaching the English chair at Cranston West to work with her in creating a future lesson on bias, a topic closely related to the issue of fake news, which she believes is an important issue for students to learn about as well.

For more information about media literacy, visit the Center for Media Literacy at www.medialit.org.

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