The Media: Separating Fact from Fiction

An informed citizenry is vital to democracy. Yet the challenge of wading through information—and misinformation—has never been greater. How can educators help young people make sense of the news they get from an ever-evolving media landscape? 

I talked to Jim Warren, chief media writer for poynter.org and national political correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, to get a veteran journalist’s perspective. He notes that the critical-thinking skills kids develop in school can help them become thoughtful, curious, and media-literate individuals.

Warren says that the first step for students is to verify things they hear or read. One of journalism’s most popular maxims, Warren adds, still holds up: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” 

Warren advises students “to look for evidence when someone makes a claim, especially in a social media age.” Even his own young children, he reports, are coming home with inaccurate information about current events that they get from their friends. 

“The reason we have journalism,” Warren says, “is because it’s very difficult many times, and always has been, to figure out: What are rumors? What are facts? What are deceptions? And what are things that are just plain mistakes?”

"Fake News"

The 2016 presidential campaign popularized a term that has been relevant for as long as people have told stories: “fake news.” 

In 2016, sites in search of clicks and advertising revenue, as well as individuals seeking to sway political views, published articles with such claims as: “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS,” and “Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America.”

A study released in January by NYU economics professor Hunt Allcott and Stanford economics professor Matthew Gentzkow found that such stories did not influence the outcome of the election. Nonetheless, one legacy of “fake news” is that honest mistakes are now sometimes branded as intentionally inaccurate, which can be confusing, especially for younger students.

Here are tips to help foster media literacy:

1. Talk about current events

Ask students which stories they have read or heard about, then have them verify the information with at least two reputable sources. This Junior Scholastic article about spotting fake news encourages students to examine the sources used in articles to determine potential biases.  

2. Think critically

“Retain a sense of skepticism, not cynicism,” Warren says. “Even if a story is in The New York Times or The Washington Post, or on the CBS Evening News or any news outlet that you respect, don’t necessarily accept what you read and what you hear as gospel.”

3. Define your terms

Keep in mind that “the media” is a broad term that encompasses hundreds of different news sources with an array of viewpoints. 

4. Consider the source

Don’t use Wikipedia as “the final neutral judge on different subject areas,” Warren advises. “As great a source of information as it can be, it’s a big mistake for kids to go to Wikipedia and think that everything on a particular topic—whether it’s immigration or Franklin Roosevelt—is the sum and substance of your research."

Some blogs offer compelling insights and often are accessible to young people. Warren cites Monkey Cage, which was started by a political scientist and is now hosted by The Washington Post, as a go-to source. 

5. Fact check 

PolitiFact.com and Factcheck.org are great for verifying claims made by politicians.

6. Use primary sources

Read official documents, letters, and transcripts, when available. Warren says that universities, libraries, and research institutes are great places for students to track down primary sources.

Encourage students to read the Constitution. The National Archives offers comprehensive lesson plans that will help them better understand the document.