Teaching Media Literacy in the Era of Fake News

By Leslie Forde 10.31.2017 blog

“I don’t like football, it’s bad. It causes concussions,” he said, his small brow furrowed with conviction.

“Okay. Why do you feel that way? Help me and the class understand.” The boy’s teacher, Erik Palmer, gently probed for the rationale behind his statement. The child looked up, shifting his weight uncomfortably, before sitting back down. “I’m not sure, Mr. Palmer. I just heard it.”

“Fake News” remains a hot topic underscoring media literacy as an essential part of civic understanding. In celebration of Media Literacy Week, Erik Palmer, media literacy expert and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt thought leader, shared his perspective after 20 years of teaching the topic in classrooms and to educators.

“Spouting conclusions, unfortunately, has become the norm in today’s political discourse. We need to teach kids to construct the points that led to the conclusions,” Palmer said. “What sticks in people’s minds is what’s available to them. Topic X is bad, they recall hearing it, but don’t remember where.” In order to bring the concept to life in the classroom, a difficult one for many adults to grasp, students need to understand, “that’s a conclusion. What statements led to that conclusion?”

How to Know Which Sources to Trust

“The default used to be ‘I believe’ and is shifting to ‘I don’t believe anything,’” Palmer said. “When our top elected officials describe news from our most credentialed media outlets as fake, all sources of information are undermined.”

This mistrust is the troubling byproduct of both the rhetoric around fake news, as well as the actual presence of false news reports pumped into the internet by disreputable sources. Although the overall impact on children’s beliefs is still unknown, the trust gap among adults is visible. According to a December 2016 Pew Research study, nearly one-in-three U.S. adults (32 percent) say they often see fake political news online. An earlier report (January 2016) from Pew showed trust in the media among Millennials is trending down. Just 27 percent of Millennials now say the media has a positive impact, compared with 26 percent of Gen-Xers and Silents and 23 percent of Boomers.

Media bias, also widely discussed, perhaps more so after the 2016 election is one that journalists are honor bound to take seriously. “Many people may not realize that reputable news organizations follow strict journalistic ethics and standards and they have a lot of checks and balances along the way,” said Angela Hunter, Executive Producer of Channel One News. “So when you compare a legacy news organization to a blog or some other less traditional news organization, it is helpful to understand the journalistic process and what goes into the report.”

Educators and media have stepped up to teach the fundamentals of analyzing every source and evaluating it for trustworthiness. For instance, “fake and bias are different things,” Palmer said. “You can show images of Donald Trump that make him look like a wonderful or a terrible person. Both images are true — the photos exist. Choosing one image over the other displays your bias.”

It takes a long time for kids to grasp subtleties on the continuum from fiction to fact across categories. Palmer suggested that, “a little bit of suspicion should be the new default. Let’s help kids move to ‘even if I believe most of what I see is true, let me check.’”

Standards for Media Literacy

Media literacy concepts are now baked into state and national standards across subjects, including the C3 Framework for Social Studies, which includes “making and supporting evidence-based claims and counter-claims” as a key component. They require that students demonstrate the ability to access, analyze and evaluate all media types, from movies and TV shows to news articles and YouTube clips. “Teaching students how to think, not what to think, is the goal of social studies educators,” said Geraldine Stevens, Product Marketing Director for HMH Social Studies. “In this way, skills are paramount. When students look at evidence — in all its modern forms — they analyze point of view, bias, context and authenticity. This is critical to successfully navigate today’s media-saturated society.”

How do you teach media literacy in your class? Share your experience in the comments. We’ve also gathered additional links and resources to help you make the most of Media Literacy Week.

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