How I Guide My Students to Ferret Out Fake News

Amid the surge of fake news, I am more serious than ever about my role as a history and journalism teacher to foster students’ media literacy. By fake news, I don’t mean stories a reader objects to because of political leanings or other beliefs. That’s above my pay grade. I mean content that is completely fabricated with the intent to deceive.  
To help my junior and senior students understand why fake news is a problem we need to care about, this past school year I asked them to analyze a passage from “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765) by John Adams: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people… [who] have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.”
Then I asked: “If the public falls prey to false information presented as news, what could that mean for liberty in America?”
One student replied, “It means that the public will vote and make decisions based on deceit and lies, causing havoc to our representative democracy. I also worry that with so much fake news, the public may not know what to believe, even when the truth is right in front of their noses, for all to see.”
My student’s thoughtful comment stands out to me — and gives me hope. While I don’t think students today lack critical thinking skills, I do see that many young people value quick, easy answers to difficult questions. It’s understandable since they are growing up in a digital, on-demand culture that seems to value immediacy above all else, including carving out the time needed to stay well-informed about the world. I know no silver bullet will fix these underlying cultural challenges, but I am finding ways to cut through the clutter and help students discern fact from fake news.

Draw in History

On the first day of school at Brimmer and May (MA) last year, I made it clear that fake news is nothing new. In my American history class, I projected onto the whiteboard the famous work by German-American painter Emanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” I asked my energetic minds, fresh from summer break, to analyze the painting as they would a primary source. I told them nothing about Leutze, when the painting was completed, or even its title.
“That’s clearly George Washington,” one student shouted, as others nodded their heads in agreement. “He’s leading his troops into battle.” 
“Very good,” I responded. “But can you discern any other details, perhaps about why Washington is standing when everybody else is sitting or rowing?”
“Because he’s modeling bravery and strength by making his presence pronounced,” another student said. “He is showing that he isn’t afraid of any fire that might come his way, or even British troops on the other side.”
Then, students agreed that based on the blue piece of sky in the background, the crossing likely took place in the morning. To substantiate that claim, students talked about the sunlight peeking through the clouds, spotlighting the general. Some students commented on the width of the river, guessing where the crossing took place. Students reported feeling confident about their conclusions.

Throw in a Curveball

 “Washington Crossing the Delaware" by German-American painter Emanuel Leutze. Credit: Creative Commons license.
Everything changed after I asked: “What if this painting is lying to you?”

“Oh, no!” a student exclaimed. “There’s no way Washington could have stood up on that rickety boat. That’s fake news. I knew it.”
“And yet you didn’t say anything,” I responded, then revealed the artist’s name and the painting’s title. I explained that the artist didn’t begin working on the original work until the late 1840s, well after the merciless crossing on Dec. 25, 1776. The men were mounting a surprise attack against Hessian mercenaries stationed in Trenton, NJ — not against British soldiers, as my students imagined. Furthermore, where the crossing occurred, the Delaware River is much narrower than Leutze depicted. I also explained that a fledgling American army, in dire need of a victory to turn the tide, secured one with few casualties.
Had I revealed those facts at the outset, students assured me that they would have taken a more critical look. They acknowledged that the passage of time as well as America’s ultimate independence likely influenced Leutze’s poetic license to depict Washington in heroic fashion.
I was pleased by these signs of skepticism, but also taken aback by the number of students who initially accepted the painting as literal or semi-literal truth. At this point, I urged the class to question everything they see and hear, thus underscoring a key point of the lesson: A picture can lie just as easily as text.

In fact, it would have been impossible for Washington, as athletic as he was, to stand on the rowboat in Leutze’s painting, even more so because, contrary to what students concluded, the crossing happened at night, during a surprise nor’easter with sleet and wind pounding Washington and his men. Furthermore, as historian David Hackett Fischer wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Washingtons Crossing: “Most of the men crossed the Delaware standing up. Big river ferries and freight boats had few seats or none at all. On a wet winter night, anyone who sat in the bottom of a Durham boat or ferry would have been sitting in ice water.”

When I revealed that the “Stars and Stripes” fluttering behind Washington wasn’t created until a year later, I watched my students grow distressed, even angry — not at me, but at being duped.
Toward the end of class, I asked them how often they take information at face value, without questioning the source or the author’s intent. In the discussion that ensued, students said they scrutinize sources of information in an academic setting, but at home, when they hop on social media, it’s a different story. Most said they rarely read entire articles because of their busy schedules. Instead, they skim headlines and catch snippets to stay informed.
Before class let out that day, I stressed to students how the historian’s craft can be applied in their lives outside the classroom — and urged them to question the credibility and accuracy of a news item, blog post, iPhone alert, photo, or anything else they come across. 

Discuss Current Events in Class

This past year, I regularly wove current events into the curriculum and modeled how I assess news stories for their truthfulness. When we studied the contentious election of 1824 — in which John Quincy Adams made a “corrupt bargain” to gain votes in the only presidential election yet decided by the House of Representatives, denying Andrew Jackson the White House — students also considered the dirty politics of the two major campaigns in the 2016 presidential race.  
With the projector on, I modeled how I, a news junkie, sift through online content from CNN, The New York Times, Politico, MSNBC, and Fox News, comparing stories from several outlets. I asked students to think critically about what they read, and compare the content of one article with another on the same topic. I reiterated the need to consult sources that one disagrees with — that way, students will better understand others’ views before engaging in discourse. Ultimately, I hope this will bring about greater civility.
I also want students to develop their gut instincts about what is — and is not — fake news, and   see my role as planting seeds in this endeavor.

Use More Methods

1. I teach the elements of journalism, including requiring students to produce articles from start to finish. As a result, students learn to be skeptical about the veracity of a news or opinion piece that does not attribute quotes, cite or link to crucial information, tries to sell the reader a product, or fails to abide by the inverted pyramid structure. This year, my students also wrote opinion articles about several controversial issues that link history to current events, such as whether the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson shared similar characteristics.

In an end-of-year anonymous survey, one student wrote, “Now that I have at least some experience with what goes into quality journalism, I’m more aware of opinion presented as news. I’m also more skeptical of articles that don’t follow established journalistic norms, such as an inverted pyramid structure, or articles that read poorly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s fake news, but it tells me to check if established news organizations are posting similar stories.”

Photography editor Noa Schabes '17 (middle) discusses the layout of a story with Managing Editor Liam Johansson (left) and Editor-in-Chief Sam Ravina (right) in the computer lab. Credit: David Barron/Oxygen Group.

2. I model ways to use and browse social media. With the projector on, I show which stories I repost and comment on — mostly from award-winning, established news outlets. One senior noted: “I paid close attention to the types of articles that came up in your social media timelines. I quickly started to check out those same sources, which gave me a better sense of where I should get my news — certainly not the first news alert that happens to pop up.” 

Research shows that educators have much work to do in this arena. According to a 2016 study from Stanford University, “‘digital natives’ may be able to flip between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media, they are easily duped.”
3. I am shifting my approaches after speaking with experts. For one, I’ve decided to abandon checklists that seek to ferret out fake news since connecting with Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University and lead author of the forthcoming study “The Challenge That’s Bigger Than Fake News: Teaching Students to Engage in Civic Online Reasoning.”  

Wineburg says checklists are a “colossal waste of time.” His study, due out this fall in American Educator, explains how checklists “train students’ attention on the website itself, thus cutting them off from the most efficient route to learning more about a site: finding out what the rest of the web has to say (after all, that’s why we call it a web). In other words, students need to harness the power of the web to evaluate a single element in it.”
Wineburg calls this strategy “lateral reading,” and notes it is much more effective in determining what’s trustworthy than the close reading of a source. The challenge here is determining how many other sites are sufficient to check. I look forward to figuring that out as I experiment with lateral reading in the upcoming school year.

Keep Experimenting and Sharing

Based on my experience and interviews with thought leaders, there’s no right way to teach about fake news. Without a magic elixir, we must be nimble and try new approaches to help our students become better informed. Most of all, teachers across school sectors must continue to communicate and share best practices. Giving up the fight against fake news is not an option.


David Cutler
David Cutler

David Cutler teaches American history, government and journalism at Brimmer and May (Massachusetts). His writing has appeared in the National Association of Independent Schools, Edutopia, HuffPost, The Atlantic, and PBS NewsHour. 


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