Fake news is designed to steer political opinion, foster dissent, incite racism, sell products and leave tawdry calling cards. These disguised nasty grams can change the course of elections, decisions impacting schools and government — even how you view your neighbor.
It's planted on social media and "news" sites, sometimes in subtle ways, or with the flourish of click-baiting headlines. It comes as advertorials in the guise of news-sponsored content, or links embedded in other stories to take the reader on a fact-starved ride.
"It's a tsunami of disinformation and propaganda," says Howard Schneider, the pioneering dean of the State University of New York at Stony Brook's School of Journalism.
Schneider, the former editor of Newsday, established the journalism school in 2006. While developing plans for the program, he was teaching an Ethics and Values of the American Press course. He soon discovered the students were confused about the news.
One-third of his students tended to believe anything that said "news" on it. A third were cynical and didn't believe anything they read, and the other third was "totally confused" about the role of a true journalist.
"I was haunted by this class," Schneider says, concluding that news literacy needed to be a vital mainstay of the journalism program. "Transmitting, creating and consuming news had so profoundly been altered that we had to take on the second mission to train the audience."
Thus, Stony Brook's Center for News Literacy was born in 2007.
Learning how to examine news has payoffs beyond just establishing what is real and true, says Jonathan Anzalone, CNL's assistant director and a member of United University Professions, NYSUT's higher education affiliate representing SUNY faculty and staff.
"One of the collateral benefits is evidence-based critical thinking ... Judgments lead to actions," he says, noting that the decisions we make and our ability to identify reliable information affects our own lives, and society as a whole.
"We rely on the news for everything, from ‘Should I bring an umbrella today?' to ‘Who should I vote for?" he says.
Anzalone suggests his students — and everyone, for that matter — consume a "mixed news diet" of radio, print, online, video and TV. While students say the news is "bouncing off them," his tactic is to embolden them to pay attention to what they choose to watch or listen to, and why.
"We can't slow down the news cycle, we can slow down the way we think," Anzalone says. "The responsibility is on all of us to be critical, active citizens."
He introduces students to indirect evidence that can taint news: second-hand accounts; inferences; comments from a lawyer or press secretary. Direct evidence is video, audio or a photo; documents; records; journalistic and observer eyewitness accounts.
Janis Schachter, a United Teachers of Northport member who teaches news literacy to high school seniors, calls the fake news era a crisis for citizens of democracy. "To make decisions we need to find reliable information," she says.
Schachter's students answer questions about articles they've examined for verification, independence and accountability.
"We look at stories that turned out to be false, or partially false. We go back and see what we should've noticed," Schachter says. Red flags include single-source stories, the reader's own bias or an unreliable author. Students learn how social media plays into their own biases, sending them "news" based on other items they have clicked on.
A former news reporter and copy editor, Schachter learned the craft of teaching news literacy at CNL.
"I just love it!" she says. "I'm putting my journalism and teaching together. Students are curious about the world and they want to understand it better."
Lesley Battaglia, a Williamsville Teachers Association member, uses materials from C-SPAN Classroom to educate AP Government students about news literacy. News bias had always been part of the class, but after the 2016 presidential election she decided to develop full lesson plans on news literacy.
"Suddenly ‘fake media' was a term students were asking about," Battaglia says. Videos and lesson plans from C-SPAN Classroom examine topics such as satire, the effect of fake news on democracy, and the role of news organizations and social media. The site even has a lesson on media and the current administration, which often calls unflattering, yet legitimate, news "fake."
"A main concern is that students just think they can Google a topic and the first thing they find is newsworthy," Battaglia says. She also has students examine the sources of the Twitter posts they commonly rely on.
The concerns teachers are uncovering are not unusual. A 2016 Stanford University study of students in middle school, high school and college concluded that "Overall, young people's ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: Bleak."
Many students failed to notice the difference between ads and news; and did not pursue the source providing the information, according to the study, From History Assessments to Assessments of News Literacy. Many students were distracted and confused by ads and opinions.
"For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not," the Stanford study says.
Students in the study had to consider information on websites, home page analysis, news on Facebook, Twitter news, articles, comment sections, native advertising and news searches including opinion news. Student assessment skills often focused only on a strength or weakness of the news, but not both.
Both Schachter and Anzalone, at the start of their school years, require their students to undergo a complete news blackout.
The students soon realize it's impossible to totally escape the news. Schachter says the goal is to get them to understand how much news is pushed at them, and then learn to seek news that is reliable.
"If it's something you care about, you have to do a little work," she says. She teaches them to click on the "about" link to learn about the organization presenting information.
"I'm much more critical of what I'm reading," says Northport student Kaitlyn Cunningham, the editor of her school newspaper.
Educators hope many more students are exposed to that way of thinking, too.
Schneider, the CNL's director, met with the state Board of Regents in mid-February to propose working with Regents to define the scope of the problem; make an inventory of existing programs underway by individual teachers around the state; consider regional workshops; and work together to fund demonstration projects for curriculum for students in grades as early as middle school.
The CNL says 10 states already have bills in their legislatures to mandate media literacy education.
Free classroom resources
The Center for News Literacy offers workshops for educators, including a summer literacy academy. For information, visit www.centerfornewsliteracy.org.
Free resources for teaching about news literacy are also available via the American Federation of Teachers at sharemylesson.com.