How Media Literacy can Help Students Discern Fake News

Posted by Nancy Rogan on

JUDY WOODRUFF: Helping children distinguish between false information and fact-based news, it’s a distinction increasingly a problem for adults.

And, to be clear, we’re referring to false information disguised as a legitimate news story, not reporting that people dislike for political reasons and label fake news.

In Washington state, educators and media literacy advocates have joined together with legislators to address the problem.

Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza with our partner Education Week traveled there recently.

It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

NIAMH O’CONNELL, Third Grade Teacher, Bertschi School: This was the front page of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Niamh O’Connell third grade history class at Bertschi School is analyzing old news stories, looking for evidence of bias.

FRED CODDON, Third Grade Student, Bertschi School: People, if they don’t know how to analyze it, will just say, oh, wow, that’s true.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Fred Coddon looks at the choice of words used in a story about Japanese internment camps during World War II.

FRED CODDON: Notice how they’re wording it Japanese, instead of Japanese-Americans?

NIAMH O’CONNELL: What was the purpose of that? Why do they do that?

FRED CODDON: The purpose was to say, oh, we’re not imprisoning American citizens, or, as they put it, we’re not evacuating American citizens. We’re evacuating Japanese.

NIAMH O’CONNELL: And why do they use the word evacuate?

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Another student also notices the language.

WILL PARSONS, Third Grade Student, Bertschi School: I saw some fake advertising for the Japanese internment camps. They said they were assembly centers.

NIAMH O’CONNELL: So they kind of made it seem really cool, and, actually, it wasn’t?


KAVITHA CARDOZA: O’Connell uses examples from the past, so these kids can become smarter about media messages in the present, even though they’re only 8 years old.

COCO JAMES, Third Grade Student, Bertschi School: I want to learn how to like analyze it myself and have my own opinion.

NIAMH O’CONNELL: They soak up everything around them. I think it’s important for kids to be able to control the interpretations that they hear and see every day, instead of the interpretations maybe controlling them.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Recognizing bias in news stories is one form of media literacy. Spotting when the news is entirely fabricated, like these stories, is something else entirely.

Often, these stories are designed to look as if they come from legitimate news organizations, and are meant to be easily shared on social media, resulting in confusion over what’s real.

During the recent election season, there have been reports of a concerted effort to spread fake news, in a bid to influence public opinion. A recent Stanford University study of almost 8,000 students showed they were easily duped online.

Researchers found, overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.

You have been working on media literacy for how long?

CLAIRE BEACH, Media Literacy Now: About 40 years.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Claire Beach is a media literacy advocate and former teacher. She says just because kids are comfortable with social media doesn’t mean they’re savvy about the information they’re consuming.

CLAIRE BEACH: When they’re using their phones, they may know how to make something work, but they don’t have the ethical piece, the emotional intelligence piece. It’s a wilderness out there for some kids.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: She’s worked with lawmakers like Democratic state Senator Marko Liias to encourage media literacy classes in grades K through 12.

MARKO LIIAS (D), Washington State Senator: I was reading a stunning statistic that, just since 2003 to today, humanity has created more information than we created in all of human history up until 2003. So the pace of information, the pace of data, the pace of what our students are being exposed to is rising exponentially.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: How do you convince people that this is not about politics, this is about critical thinking?

MARKO LIIAS: Both of the bills that I have passed have had bipartisan support. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, right or left, we want people to go into the voting booth educated and prepared to make the best decision for our communities. And if people can’t discern fake information from real information, that really corrodes the basic institutions of our democracy.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The law in Washington state encourages educators to develop policies around media literacy and to share resources.

It also allows districts access to federal technology funding. This new law in Washington is being used as a model by about a dozen other states. Advocates want to see media literacy taught in all 50 states.

JAMES STEYER, Founder and CEO, Common Sense Media: There’s clearly growing momentum to pass this kind of legislation.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Jim Steyer founded Common Sense, one of several organizations dedicated to media literacy.

NARRATOR: Here are five ways to spot fake news.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: They have also worked with Harvard University to create free lesson plans and online resources.

JAMES STEYER: The essence of media literacy is critical thinking. Every child in America needs those skills, particularly when they live in this 24/7 media and technology world, where they’re just bombarded with information. Oftentimes, it’s inaccurate.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: These students are in Catherine Sparks’ English class at Edmonds-Woodway High School.

STUDENT: It’s crazy how many people actually trust these sources.

STUDENT: You can’t distinguish the difference anymore.

STUDENT: It can get 1,000 retweets. It is not even true.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Sparks uses the play “Hamlet” to talk about fake news.

CATHERINE SPARKS, Teacher, Edmonds-Woodway High School: It’s about spying and lying and how that creates a ripe environment for the proliferation of fake news.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Sparks has created untrue stories based on the play.

CATHERINE SPARKS: In act one, scene two, when he says oh, but this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew, sure, it could be a metaphor, but Hamlet has a shocking flesh-eating illness.


CATHERINE SPARKS: Could you actually support that with evidence from the text? Good luck. Fake news is not news you disagree with. Fake news is fabricated news.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Sparks believes letting her students create their own fake news will teach them how to critically think through some of the information they receive. What words are used? Who benefits? Is there any truth to the story?

STUDENT: It’s got to be dramatic, like, absurd things that you’re like, what?

CATHERINE SPARKS: This is a juicy story right here.

STUDENT: It’s entirely fabricated.

CATHERINE SPARKS: What would be the outcome of producing this story?

STUDENT: If the public saw this, they’re like, oh, my gosh, there’s so much drama and scandal going on.

CATHERINE SPARKS: What’s been the most painful about the proliferation of fake news in the media is to watch my students start to distrust everything.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: That’s exactly why state Senator Marko Liias says media literacy is so important.

MARKO LIIAS: At its bedrock, when our founding fathers created this country, the reason why they were so committed to public education was to make sure that we had an educated citizenry.

CATHERINE SPARKS: Anything that starts with “share if you’re outraged,” that’s a bad sign. And outrage is just the lifeblood of fake news.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I’m Kavitha Cardoza in Seattle, Washington.

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