Technology in the Classroom: Discerning the News


Strategies for educators and students to become discerning consumers of news

by Susan Brooks-Young

Anyone can walk up to a newsstand, pick up a copy of a mainstream newspaper and a tabloid, and — without reading a single article — make a fairly safe guess as to which of the two contains more reliable information. That’s because the physical appearance of each publication offers clues that customers can use to make judgments regarding its value. These clues include the quality of the newsprint and ink used, the level of professionalism of the photographs featured, and even where the headlines fall on a spectrum of sensationalism.

Of course, these indicators aren’t always accurate, but they usually hold up pretty well. A challenge today is that few people regularly read print newspapers.

When a group of Americans was surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2016 about where they most often get their news, 57 percent said they went first to television, and 38 percent said the Internet. This means that nearly all the physical clues so readily discernible in the example above are missing, because in digital environments most text and images appear on the surface to be of the same quality.

While there are still ways to vet the reliability of the news presented on television or online, these skills require a higher level of sophistication, and many people — students and adults alike — appear to be lacking in these areas. Stanford Graduate School of Education released a report in November 2016 that confirms this observation. The study examined students’ abilities to evaluate the veracity of information they find online, a skill that the Stanford researchers dubbed “civic online reasoning.” Their findings showed that students in middle school, high school, and even college have a great deal of difficulty determining whether or not online news is credible.

This is a serious problem. In fact, the report warns that poor civic online reasoning skills could threaten our democracy. Fortunately it’s also a problem that can be resolved through education. It has nothing to do with anyone’s political preferences — but everything to do with making a conscious decision to teach students specific critical thinking skills that will help them carefully consider what they are reading. However, this is more complex than merely compiling a list of 10 tips and tricks to uncover the truth. Teaching students to become discerning consumers of news requires serious work in several areas.

Where to begin

Start by being committed to using accurate terminology when referring to incorrect and misleading information that’s being passed off as news. Avoid terms like “fake news” or “alternative facts.” These terms sugarcoat stories that are partially or completely made up. Sir Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, recently said, “There is badly written news, there is news I didn’t get, but there is no such thing as fake news — it’s lies.”

It’s also important to avoid falling into the “false equivalencies” trap. CBS journalist Bob Simon said there aren’t always two sides to a story. “Sometimes the truth is obvious. Sometimes it’s right in front of your face.” For examples of stories where there are not two sides, use this link (bit.ly/TCTBBCStories) to access five instances from the 2017 French presidential election. BBC News examined these narratives in depth and deemed each of them to be completely false, with no second side to the story.

Urban myths abound on the Internet, and not all are political in nature. For example, most viral Facebook warnings about privacy settings are not true. Or, no matter what a video may appear to portray, sharks did not swim through New Jersey towns during Hurricane Sandy, and a pig in a petting zoo did not save a young goat from drowning in the trout pond.

There are tools — called “fact-checkers” — that can be used to verify stories that either seem too good to be true or somehow just not right. Here are a few well-known, trusted fact-checkers:

Snopes
FactCheck
Politifact

But using accurate terminology and fact-checking just scratch the surface. What else do readers need to think about and be aware of to avoid being duped by enticing and yet entirely false news?

Daniel J. Levitin, author of Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era (Dutton, 2017), suggests that anyone can learn to identify misinformation by focusing on several key areas, including evaluating numbers and words. His book lays the groundwork for strategies teachers can use as they help students become better consumers of media. Here are some suggestions for evaluating numbers and words.

Evaluating Numbers

Data-driven decision-making is a term educators have used for decades to suggest that instructional interventions are determined based on measurable benchmarks. We’re not the only group that wants to hear messages based on data. The problem with this is that the statistics we crave are easily manipulated to prove whatever point someone wants to make.

When he was a law student at Harvard, Tyler Vigen created a website called Spurious Correlations. He used real data from the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Census to show statistical correlations that, in fact, are not correlations at all. His point was to raise interest in numbers and statistics and show how easy it is to use real numbers to reach completely false conclusions.

This leads to the first question students must ask. Do these numbers make sense? If so, why, and if not, why not?

We are bombarded daily with statistics, charts, graphs, and the like which mean nothing or are intentionally misleading. We need to help students look at this information with a more critical eye. Here are a few suggestions.

Misleading charts and graphs.

We deal with so much information on a daily basis that any graphic that makes complex information readily accessible is greatly appreciated. Unfortunately it is all too easy to misrepresent data to the point of completely misrepresenting the original meaning. There are several things to consider when determining the validity of an image. Teach students to pay attention to the following:

  • The title of the graph or chart. Is it misleading in any way?
  • All of the labels. Are they clear and consistent or designed to confuse the reader?
  • Axes. Are they labeled accurately? Is a double y-axis used? If so, how?
  • Scale. Does it start at zero? If not, why not? Are the numbers equally spaced?
  • Source of the data. Where did it come from and is this a reliable, applicable source?
  • Pictographs. Are data displayed as bars or lines, or as pictures that distort the display?
  • Pie charts. When added up, do the slices of the pie total 100 percent? If not, why not?

Statistics How To, a website for non-statisticians, shares multiple examples of distorted images.Use these as you review the above points about charts and graphs.

Distorting averages.

Averages are used to identify patterns and make decisions, but they can be misunderstood or misrepresented because there are three different ways to calculate them: mean, median, and mode. The central value in a set of numbers is called the mean. For example, the mean of this number series (12, 12, 12, 45, 52, 61, 70) is 37.7. Median refers to the middle number in a sorted list of numbers, and mode is the number that appears most often in a series. In the number series above, the median is 45 and the mode is 12 (because it appears three times). Given that there are three ways to represent the same data, it’s important to know what is being presented and why.

Another potential problem with averages is that people often equate the average with the term typical even though their meanings are not identical. Typical refers to the characteristics often associated with a particular type of person or event, which is not at all the same thing as an average!

Evaluating words

Despite understanding that perspective can taint the truth of something, there are things people know to be true based upon personal experience. For example, most people learn at a young age that a burner on the stove may be hot because they’ve burned themselves in the past.

Sensible people also realize that no single person can know everything. There are things about the world we accept to be true because an expert has deemed it so. Most people avoid restaurants with less than an “A” rating not because they’ve inspected the kitchen themselves, but because they rely on the expertise of the inspector who rated the restaurant. By the same token, blind trust in “experts” can lead to trouble. Maybe that inspector has a personal grudge against the restaurant owner, leading to a less-than-stellar rating.

Common sense and reasoning skills must be coupled with personal knowledge and respect for verified expertise when determining the reliability of print material. Here are some suggestions that can help anyone become a more critical reader.

Take headlines with a grain of salt.

Were you taught the pre-reading strategy of reading titles and subtitles and reviewing images prior to reading an article? That may have worked at one time, but recent research shows that readers may get more accurate information if they skip the headline and just start reading. Why? Because many of today’s headlines are designed to grab a reader’s interest, even if that means distorting the truth. The information implied in a deceptive headline is often what sticks with the reader, even when people take the time to read the entire article and realize that the headline is inaccurate. Then there are the readers who look at the headline, skim a couple of paragraphs, and decide they have the gist of the article. In that case, they may have been better informed if they hadn’t read anything at all! To learn more about headlines and their influence on readers, check out this article: “How Headlines Change the Way We Think,” from the New Yorker (bit.ly/TCTHeadlines), and caution students against relying on headlines and skimming when reading news and journal articles.

Check the date.

As if there weren’t enough breaking stories to hold everyone’s interest, a surprising number of articles seem to have at least nine lives. It’s very common for digital stories to reappear multiple times. Unless readers check the date or the content is so topical that it’s instantly recognized as outdated, there are few other visual clues that tip readers off to the fact that the article may not be current. So before getting riled up about anything, make sure the event you’re reading about happened recently, not a couple of years ago.

Stick with reliable resources.

Attorney Vanessa Otero created a chart in December 2016 that can be accessed at bit.ly/NewsSourceChart. Her intent was to take what she knew about an array of news sources and organize that information into a visual that nonreaders or infrequent readers would understand. It is troubling that there is a need for something like this, but it does provide a tool for discussion about what does or does not constitute a reliable source. Digging into this topic and helping students understand that reliability involves far more than just finding articles that confirm their existing beliefs goes a long way toward helping students become better at identifying accurate reporting.

In addition to reliability, it’s equally important to be familiar with a website before reposting something. For example, the Onion and the Borowitz Report are both satire sites. Readers frequently misunderstand the nature of the work published there and mistakenly repost articles as though they are the truth.

Find another source that confirms this

Before deciding that a story is true, check to see if the information can be verified with a reliable source. It’s not unusual for someone to forward an article that seems perfectly reasonable on the surface until the source is revealed. At this juncture a reader has two choices: delete the article or do some further checking to see if anyone else is reporting the same story. Even if the same information turns up elsewhere, it’s important to ensure that the second reporting site is trustworthy — two unreliable sources don’t make a story true. Finally, stories often spread across the Internet and television like wildfire. One outlet publishes something, and the next picks it up without thoroughly checking the facts.

Verifying the news we read is more complex today than it was even a few years ago. As adults, we are responsible for ensuring that information we share is accurate. We also need to take specific action to help our students become more sophisticated consumers of the news they hear, watch, and read. Use the suggestions in this column to get started.

Here’s one final resource: a video that offers an overview of the challenges we all face as we learn to be more discerning about the news we use and share. Entitled How to Choose Your News, the video is hosted by TED-Ed.

For readers’ convenience, this and other resource links in this column may be accessed at bit.ly/TCTLinks.

Image credit: Shutterstock 525254809

Image credit: Shutterstock 525254809

Susan Brooks-Young, a former Catholic school teacher, spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author.

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Technology in the Classroom: Discerning the News
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