Bad News

I counted feet in iambic pentameter in my freshman English class, discussed literary devices the following school year, identified rhetorical devices in AP Language as a junior, and wrote analytical essays my senior year. For all the Shakespeare I remember to this day, I never learned how to read the news in a classroom. More importantly, I never learned how to tell what made the news credible versus not.

I’m cautious to use the term “fake news” because it could mean a number of things. It could mean satire from The Onion or simply be a label slapped onto facts that don’t support your political preferences. Anything could be “fake” if we create our own comforting yet delusional realities.

I’m specifically talking about deceptive media outlets that publish stories to mislead public opinion, putting out well-packaged lies in the form of news stories. Pope Francis never endorsed Donald Trump for president, but WTOE 5 News claimed he did. The outlet discloses that it’s a “fantasy news website” on its “About” page but that didn’t stop the story from going viral.

It’s becoming harder to know which stories are factual, as more start-up media outlets establish themselves on social media. The day after the election, I saw a headline that claimed that President Obama issued an executive order for a full recount circulating on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Some of my friends shared the story with gasping emojis, and I clicked on it out of doubt (and maybe some hope). The story was published on a page with “ABC News” in its banner. Had I not checked the link, which read “,” I probably would have fallen for it too.

It’s no surprise that large platforms like Facebook can serve as breeding grounds for sensational hoaxes, but it’s concerning how many real people believe and spread them. I don’t think most are deliberately trying to spread lies; I’d like to think that they don’t know better because they never had the formal opportunity to learn otherwise. Media literacy isn’t specifically emphasized in our current national education standards. Under Common Core’s key “College and Career” readiness standards for reading, it requires that students “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

My teachers created assignments to achieve this goal in the form of research papers and analytical essays. But learning how to synthesize information from multiple texts with citations doesn’t necessarily teach students how to spot holes in news stories. I learned that citing Wikipedia in a paper was equal to committing academic suicide, but never what constitutes news credibility in the form of primary sources, amount of detail, or objective language.

Common Core national standards claim to emphasize 21st century skills and train students to take computer-adaptive tests. But what good does any of that do when my peers continue to spread wrong information that they haven’t learned how to catch?

My high school newspaper advisor showed me what accurate, objective reporting on a basic level looks like. On deadline nights before we went to print, he corrected misleading headlines and omitted subjective adverbs without hesitation. I still use those cues when reading stories from even credible sources. I hope to pass on this knowledge through my project to students who don’t have the opportunity to learn in their classrooms what it means to be media literate. Because it’s especially relevant, I’ve decided to include a module in my project specifically on media literacy to teach girls in high school how to recognize even the most subtle of news hoaxes. From fact checking to recognizing biased language, I hope to provide students with more tools to be smart about what they read and share.