Can you tell the difference between real and fake news?
Let's start with a news quiz: Which of the following stories is true? A. Donald Trump once told a magazine reporter if he ever ran for president he would run as a Republican because: "They're the dumbest group of voters in the country." B. Hillar...
Let's start with a news quiz: Which of the following stories is true?
A. Donald Trump once told a magazine reporter if he ever ran for president he would run as a Republican because: "They're the dumbest group of voters in the country."
B. Hillary Clinton laughed at a rape victim after defending her attacker.
C. Alternative rocker Kurt Cobain predicted Gen Xers would one day elect a business tycoon who "can't be bought."
D. None of the above.
If you picked D, you have a nose for fake news, but chances are many of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers may not be so astute. These tall tales are just a few examples of the fake stories that appeared in people's news feeds during this election cycle racking up millions of likes, shares, interactions and comments often outpacing traditional news stories, according to a recent analysis by the online news site Buzzfeed.
The rise of fiction masquerading as fact has some educators and news industry experts worried that not everyone has the skills they need to differentiate between the two. Even more troubling are concerns that readers gravitate toward information that fits their worldview regardless of whether or not it is true.
Lisa Hills, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said that as the media industry continues to digitally evolve, news, opinion and entertainment have become increasingly intertwined - especially on social media. That relationship is problematic when readers are unable or unwilling to tell fact from fiction.
"I think the line has gotten blurred because there is so much information out there, and it is hard for people to determine what is credible," Hills said. "We've been watching it, and, yes, it is a concern."
Improving media literacy
Facebook and Google announced plans to crack down on the websites that traffic in fake news by banning them from using online advertising services that are a key source of revenue. Local experts say that's a step in the right direction, but it won't eliminate fictional stories from social media feeds.
The true vaccine against misinformation is encouraging consumers to be more critical of their news.
"A lot more people are talking about the importance of media literacy in schools today," said Chris Ison, who teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota. "There is so much media, we have to get better at filtering out the good stuff."
Ison encourages students to "find media you trust for the right reasons and keep putting it to the test.'"
When university students need help deciphering whether information is credible, they turn to people like Kate Peterson, an undergraduate services librarian, who works with first- and second-year college students to improve their research and writing skills.
Peterson says today's college students have inconsistent media literacy skills. To help them improve, students are encouraged to ask critical questions of their sources using the university's catalog of vetted materials as a guide.
"I would say students are savvy for topics they know some information about already," Peterson said, but she added that less-familiar topics require students to engage in a deeper analysis of sources and ask questions about the author's motivation and bias.
"If you can't answer those questions, you should move on," Peterson tells students.
As more textbooks and other educational resources migrate online where they share space with less-credible information, the art of teaching students how to separate the good from the bad is experiencing a resurgence, said Barbara Theirl, a long-time school media specialist.
Theirl, who now works as an information and technology specialist at Boeckman Middle School in Farmington, says students begin critical analysis of online and print materials as early as third grade. The Farmington school district is one of a growing number in the Twin Cities to issue the majority of students an Apple iPad.
Many elementary schools use a system called RADCAD, which teaches students to explore a source's relevancy, appropriateness, detail, currency, authority and bias.
"I think you need to show (students) how to contrast and compare, to put on their investigative hats and don't take anything at face value," Theirl said. "They're asked to think critically and dig deeper."
Students use these critical thinking skills not only for research, but to debunk hoaxes teachers present to them to test their understanding. One such test is the plight of the fabled Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, a mythical endangered species.
"They begin to learn what you see (online) isn't always what is out there," Theirl said.
In the battle against fake news and other misinformation, associate professor Ison thinks traditional news outlets could do a lot more to champion their work and win readers' trust.
Students who take Ison's media ethics class arrive on the first day with the common suspicion that all news sources are biased. After learning about the ways trained journalists work to remain objective and report information fairly, many students see the news in a different light, Ison said.
News organizations could win more trust from readers if they were more open about how they gather and report the news, Ison said. They also need to be more upfront about mistakes and how they fix them.
"There's been some evidence, when people see the care journalists take, they understand them better, and the news organization has more credibility with them," Ison said. He added that doing so might lead more readers to reject fake news stories rather than spread them.
"The burden on the responsible citizen is bigger than ever today when it comes to media," Ison said.