Time to Deal with Fake News—for Real

It’s a new school year, and it’s time for the 3 R’s: That’s Reading, Writing, and Real News, of course. What? That’s not a key component of your curriculum? Well, it should be. Learning to tell real from fake news is every bit as important as reading and writing (and arithmetic too). And we should be introducing it to our kids at the same time we’re teaching them all those other skills.​

Consider this: We teach students pretty early on about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. It’s at the core of literacy, placing a clear wedge between fantasy and real life. In fact, Common Core’s literacy section is separated neatly into two equal parts: literature and informational text.

But what happens when that line between them begins to blur? When millions of people accept blatantly fake news as legitimate sources? At the same time, what happens when our elected leaders point to true facts they might not agree with and call them “fake”? I don’t think we can overestimate the deleterious consequences of this. Fake news is destroying our very sense of what is real.​

We’re being overwhelmed with information all the time. It’s partly a product of the time in which we live, with media blaring at us at every angle—even in the back seat of a taxi. But it’s on us as well. Maybe we’re seeking out the news that delivers what it is we want to hear. Maybe we’re not being critical enough of what ends up in front of our eyes. But let’s be clear about this. Adults are having a difficult time sorting out the truth from the noise. You think kids have a chance?​

My own children were practically born using iPads. As I watch them navigating the media, there’s the tendency to think they really know what they’re doing. They’re growing up in the tablet generation, with YouTube and Facebook, and so it seems they have more modern instincts. Whenever I begin to make that assumption, I think about the comprehensive 2016 study on evaluation information from Stanford University. More than 7,800 students participated in the research from 12 states across America.​

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said professor and lead author of the report Sam Wineburg. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.” In other words, we have a generation of children consuming online content—but who don’t have a clue how to make sense of it all.​

These kids need our help. They need steady guidance and the right tools to decipher the real from the fake. They also need to be provided with the time it takes to become truly media literate—and it’s up to us to carve those minutes out of our day-to-day curriculum. But more than that, they need to understand what the problem is. They need to be taught about the power of information, as well as the very real danger of abusing facts. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, our very democracy may be at stake.

You may be wondering what it is we can do. There’s no silver bullet, unfortunately, no single tool that will simply and effortlessly transform our students into media-literate wizards. However, groups like The News Literacy Project, NAMLE, and Common Sense Media are all doing amazing work to help educate a young readership.

And I’m proud that myON News Powered by News-O-Matic deliver texts that can push the needle toward literacy; readers of all ages can check our citations for each article in the name of transparency and, ultimately, developing globally conscientious critical thinkers.​

If we’re serious about helping our students, it’s not about a quick fix. It’s going to take a concerted effort to integrate the fake news checklists and critical thinking filters into everything that kids are reading. Yeah, it will take hard work. It will take dedication and continued persistence. But our students deserve the opportunity to understand what’s happening in their world. And they’re worth it.