During the buildup to last year’s election, the concepts of “fake news” and media literacy were everywhere. Educators wrestled with ways to teach students how to interpret the mass of information and to develop the critical-thinking skills required to winnow out the truth from the false, misleading, inaccurate, or satirical stories online.

How do we teach students to evaluate the news and information they see all around them? Where does this kind of information and media literacy fit in the school’s curriculum?

Your school library (and librarian) is the place to start. When faculty and staff approached our library team to help with issues surrounding election news coverage, we created an online research guide (nshslibrary.newton.k12.ma.us/infoliteracy) with resources such as a test for website evaluation, links to fact-checking resources such as Snopes.com and Politifact, and tips on how to do reverse-image searches on Google. We also included vocabulary lists and articles showing the impact of “fake news” to help students realize why this is important and why they should care. For staff, we created a page with links to lesson plans, starter ideas, and scholarly articles to support them in the classroom and help them make the case for why this is important.

Interpreting Media: “Bleak”

A recent Stanford University study measured young adults’ ability to interpret online media and came to the conclusion that “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.” While the internet is teenagers’ preferred source for news, they often don’t have skills to accurately interpret it. A task as basic as distinguishing sponsored content from news articles on a news website was beyond the reach of more than 80 percent of middle school students tested in the Stanford study. More than half of college students tasked with evaluating the accuracy of a tweet failed to click on the link provided before making an assessment of its value.

Practice Applying Skills to Achieve Mastery

We embraced the moment for student practice during our school’s “Sophomore Speech” project. As part of our school’s ELA curriculum, all sophomores are required to write and deliver a short persuasive speech to their peers, making an argument about some topic or issue important to them. The personal nature of this assignment, combined with topical preferences for evolving social phenomena, means many students tend to look beyond the traditional library resources and databases. In other words, they do a lot of Googling and often rely heavily on sites they find randomly on the internet.

Our first library lesson for this ELA project began by discussing what criteria students would use to determine whether a source is reliable. Then we introduced the CRAAP standard, which evaluates the source for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose—and compared student-generated criteria to the CRAAP Standard to identify gaps or blind spots in students’ evaluation skills. Next, we had students practice evaluating websites in groups.

Our website evaluation task was completely rigged. Some of our articles were obvious: a piece on texting while driving from The Onion, an outrageous article about Atlantis being hidden under Antarctic ice from an Australian news site. Others were harder: an essay on capitalism from a legitimate think tank that was written by a college sophomore (not exactly a scholarly resource). A Smoker’s Rights website, while possessing accurate information, was one-sided and created by tobacco companies. Then we challenged the students: Evaluate these sites and determine whether or not they would be acceptable sources. Would you include them in a paper? Share them with a friend?

Student Reaction

As a final exercise, we had students apply these criteria to websites they had already gathered for their own research for their sophomore speech. While some students were delighted to find they had chosen accurate and scholarly resources, others were not so pleased. Here are some of their reflections on both ends of the spectrum:

“I discovered that writers and contributors don’t seem to need actual credentials to add/suggest content. Even though many contributors do have a reliable degree of authority, I don’t feel comfortable with an encyclopedia that doesn’t screen its contributors to a certain degree.”

“It’s very reliable, and it’s an article from an educational journal. I checked the authors, and they are professors in universities. The article is from 2013; it’s not that old.”

“I will use this site because it is current and fully relevant to my topic. The author is a parent of a college student, so that can make his judgment biased, but the author clearly states his purpose, which is good. There are no citations, which could make the source less reliable. Although there are flaws with the site, I will use the ideas but not fully trust the information.”

“It doesn’t seem too legit, and the author’s name isn’t visible, and it doesn’t show where he got his sources.”

Ensuing lessons focused on social media attempted to show students how these skills were not just an academic task, but were transferable to their own lives.

For example, during one class, juniors discussed the concept of bias and “filter bubbles,” where computer algorithms designed to customize news limit the range of viewpoints presented. To make this issue relevant to our New England students (and to stay away from politics), we showed them examples of “Deflategate” coverage from the 2015 National Football League playoffs. Coverage from the hometown news sources for the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts presented very different perspectives on the issue—including ones the loyal Patriots fans in our classes had not considered before!

The exercise got students to not only think about how much they trust the news they see spreading through social media, but also prompted them to question their own habits. Studies show that more than three-quarters of teens use social media, where readers, as opposed to editors, decide what news spreads. But like adults, teens are often fooled by what they see trending on their feeds. In one study, 31 percent of children who had shared a news story in the past six months found out later it was wrong or inaccurate.

Another exercise had students trace the origin of a fast-spreading rumor in our school claiming that Nutella caused cancer—a story near and dear to their hearts and lunches. Students mentioned seeing the news on social media sites. But when the item was traced back to the original study, students saw that the news was not quite so dire: a chemical produced when processing palm oil in a specific manner has been linked to increased risks of cancer in some studies; the manufacturer of Nutella says it does not use palm oil processed in that way.

Next year we hope to expand this curriculum to a wider population of students and faculty. To answer our earlier question, “Where does this kind of information and media literacy fit in the school’s curriculum?” It fits everywhere!

Margaret Kane Schoen, Jennifer Dimmick, and Katherine Steiger are library teachers at Newton South High School in Newton, MA.

Get Cyber Savvy

  • Talk to your librarians. Fact-checking and research is what they do. Your library staff can help students and staff alike with basic research skills and come up with links, tools, and more to help them navigate social media.
  • Integrate these skills across the curriculum. These are tools students will need in English, science, health—and in their day-to-day lives.
  • Teach them young. The earlier students learn to develop a critical eye, the better. These are skills they will need not just for school, but to function in society.
  • Make it relevant. Students see research as a school assignment. Finding something that they care about (like our Nutella example) will help them embrace these important skills.
  • Don’t go it alone. Consider these resources to help with your curriculum: