Fake News is Real. Here’s One Way to Teach Students How to Tell the Difference

I lead a Global Politics Club for Moroccan English language learners. The goal of the Club is to raise students’ awareness of global issues and enhance their ability to use English for academic purposes. An important component of this is teaching them how to identify accurate sources – and avoid fake news.

During yesterday’s session, I asked students whether they thought Facebook led to increased access to factual information. They were overwhelmingly positive:

“Before Facebook, we only had the TV and radio,” they said. “We didn’t hear about a lot of things that were happening. Now, we know a lot more – things that are not reported on TV.”

I understood their positivity: Morocco is ranked 133rd out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, and its media is considered “not free” according to the most recent Freedom of the Press report by Freedom House. When compared to the limited media that was previously available, social media has opened a wealth of information to the masses.

Unfortunately, this increased access to information does not come with a filter – neither in Morocco nor worldwide. As British journalist Christiane Amanpour mentioned in her recent TED interview, the proliferation of media outlets and their consumption on social media has led to tunnel vision whereby people focus “on areas of their own interest instead of seeing the broad picture.”

This new media interface is easily exploited for nefarious purposes. Recent events such as Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election demonstrate that social media has given the fake news industry a useful network in which to access minds ripe for the planting of information that can be advantageous to governments or other entities.

Therefore, those of us teachers looking to fight against the barrage of fake news encounter a problem: the way our students are accessing news today simply does not encourage them to stop and check its validity. In this new media environment, students need to be equipped with special skills which allow them to engage with today’s media as informed, global citizens.

So how can we teach students to think critically about the media they consume and tell the factual from the false?

The solution, in my view, is to get them in the habit of checking their sources. Below, I share a simple current event exercise that I have developed which teaches students to do just that.

Same Story, Different Sources: A Weekly Current Event Reporting Exercise

English Language Level: Upper intermediate, advanced or native (I have also done this with lower intermediate and high beginning students by having them use websites such as  https://www.newsinlevels.com/ or www.breakingnewsenglish.com).

Target Age Group: Older teens and adults                                                   

Objectives: Get students in the habit of checking their sources and point them in the direction of reliable news media outlets. Secondary objectives include improving reading comprehension and summarization skills, along with the ability to present concise summaries in class orally in their own words.

The Exercise: Have students choose any news story that interests them. Then, have them report the story by synthesizing information from three articles from three different sources:

  • 2 of these articles must come from the “trusted brands” listed below:
    • BBC
    • The Guardian
    • The Independent
    • CNN
    • Reuters
    • Washington Post
    • New York Times
    • The Economist
    • NPR / PRI (National Public Radio / Public Radio International)
    • Bloomberg
    • Forbes
    • France 24
    • Financial Times
    • Wall Street Journal
    • Huffington Post
    • The New Yorker
    • The Associated Press
    • The Atlantic
  • 1 source can be any news outlet of the student’s choice

Students read all three articles at home. Then, they jot down a concise summary in their own words focusing on “who-what-when-where-why-how.” I provide a Graphic Organizer that they use to help create a summary. Finally, they present their summary in their own words in class. Typically, the summary leads to a heated discussion about each current event.

Why 3 sources?

Reading the same story from three different sources allows students to observe subtle differences in reporting. Over time, students recognize the differences between the “trusted brands” and the sources they choose themselves. With repetition of this exercise, they get in the habit of checking their sources and, eventually, going to the “trusted brands” for reliable news coverage. As a secondary benefit, students who are skeptical of western media sources (yes, I have had a few of these) are not alienated, since they are free to choose their third source from whatever media outlet they like.

Results

I’ve been beginning each weekly Global Politics Club session with this exercise for about two academic years now, and my students love it. They understand the importance of checking their sources and have gotten into the habit of going to the trusted brands as opposed to their previous usual sources. They especially like that they are free to choose any story that interests them.

Discussion

I think an important element of this exercise is that it is repeated on a periodic basis. This helps students to develop a habit of checking their sources.

In my case, one caveat is that my students are middle class and upper middle class. They all have access to the internet at home. I would love to replicate this activity with students who are less media savvy to see if it would achieve the same results.

Another caveat is that I really have no idea what my students are doing as they scroll through Facebook. In other words, I haven’t measured how this exercise has impacted their social media activity. Yet, from their performance in class, I do know that they are able to identify reliable sources and think critically about the information they read. If all young people worldwide could do this, then I think the fake news industry would go out of business.

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