Need for news literacy presses on educators in social-media age

  • Amherst Regional librarian Leslie Lomasson looks over materials created and used in a curriculum to help students evaluate information and assess news sources. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional librarian Leslie Lomasson looks over materials created and used in a curriculum to help students evaluate information and assess news sources. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lauren Phillips-Jackson revisits Amherst Regional High School, Aug. 23, where last year as a senior she helped conduct research on news sources with other students and used the results to build this diagram in the school’s library titled “How to Detect What’s Real and What’s Fake News.” GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional librarian Leslie Lomasson discusses a display in the library created last year by students who researched news sources and plotted their results using two axes in a graph titled, "How to Detect What's Real and What's Fake News". The horzontal axis measures bias in seven gradations from "extreme liberal bias" through "mainstream" to "extreme conservative bias" and the vertical axis is an assessment of quality ranging from "complex, in-depth" to "sensational or clickbait". —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Last year, in her senior year at Amherst Regional, Lauren Phillips-Jackson helped conduct research on news sources with other students and used the results to create a bulletin board display in the school's library titled "How to Detect What's Real and What's Fake News. Phillips-Jackson revisited the school on Wednesday, August 23, 2017, before starting at Lafayette College. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Last year, in her senior year at Amherst Regional, Lauren Phillips-Jackson helped conduct research on news sources with other students and used the results to build this diagram in the school's library titled "How to Detect What's Real and What's Fake News. Phillips-Jackson revisited the school on Wednesday, August 23, 2017, before starting at Lafayette College. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 9/10/2017 9:15:12 PM

AMHERST — The pope endorsed Donald Trump, who himself is facing sealed indictments and possibly the death penalty for espionage. Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and some members of his Democratic Party are engaged in a human trafficking ring run out of the basement of a Washington D.C., pizza parlor.

So-called “fake news,” it seems, is everywhere, having become a zealous focus of politicians, the media and disaffected voters alike.

Misinformation and propaganda are certainly not new, though. Lies have forever been used to seize power, and often to implement brutal policies, from so-called “blood libel” tales used as the rationale for the persecution of European Jews hundreds of years ago, to politicians’ more recent justifications for war, like Saddam Hussein’s fictitious weapons of mass destruction.

But many Pioneer Valley educators say the scourge of obfuscation has, for them, justifiably taken on a new focus in the landscape of the digital age, where the internet provides endless fuel to that long-smoldering fire.

“We’ve always needed to verify facts, we’ve always needed to cite where we get information from and know that those are authoritative sources,” Leslie Lomasson, Amherst Regional High School’s librarian, told the Gazette. “But I do think the climate in our country right now has led to almost an acceptance of fake news.”

Library specialists have always worked as gateways to facts and teachers of information literacy, but that job has taken on new urgency in recent years, Lomasson said.

“I think it’s more important than ever that we really advocate for fact- and evidence-based communication, and information and research,” she said.

Part of that information literacy education is a unit Lomasson teaches in which students evaluate two pieces of health information, one true and one false: that spit from the Gila monster, a venomous lizard, has been used as a possible treatment for diabetes; and that apricot kernels, the seeds inside the fruit, are a potential cure for cancer.

Students conduct research to determine which claim is accurate (spoiler alert — it’s the Gila monster saliva), but the point of the lesson isn’t herpetological inquiry. Rather, students identify which websites they used to confirm or repudiate those facts, and most importantly, articulate what criteria they use for evaluating those sources.

Truth decay

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, however, Lomasson, like many others, saw an increased focus on the spread of falsities. She heard someone humorously describe the phenomenon as “truth decay,” which she found fitting.

To address that rot, she supervised four students who undertook a research project in the high school’s library this spring, in which they developed a rubric to assess the political leanings and credibility of various news sources and then charted them on a large graph based on their findings.

“I definitely learned a lot about how much sources I think of as liberal, others think of as more mainstream,” said Lauren Phillips-Jackson, who worked on the project before graduating from ARHS in the spring.

Some of the questions Phillips-Jackson and the other students asked about news sources were whether the goal of the site is to get readers to share articles on social media, whether editorial standards are publicly available, what kind of sourcing the publication uses and whether stories have bylines. They then plotted their results on two axes in a graph still hanging in the library. The horizontal axis measures bias in seven gradations, from “extreme liberal bias” to “extreme conservative bias,” and the vertical axis is an assessment of quality ranging from “complex, in-depth” to “sensational or clickbait.”

Those kinds of lessons have begun to spread around the region.

In March, the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton conducted the first in a series of webinars for educators about critical inquiry in the age of the internet, helping students detect fabrications. Though there was a big snowstorm that hit on the day of the webinar, 35 educators in the region nevertheless participated.

“Obviously there was a strong interest,” William Diehl, the agency’s executive director, said of the topic. Given that appeal, he said the collaborative is developing a workshop and other offerings for educators related to critical literacy and news consumption.

“I think it’s been a critical thing for a long time,” Diehl said of information literacy, though he believes the way educators deal with the distribution of disinformation has changed in the age of social media. “Social media doesn’t have the kind of intermediate review process that most newspapers use, or journals use, or textbooks use.”

‘It’s getting harder’

John Crescitelli, who for the last seven years taught a computer class at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Northampton, has been teaching internet research skills and literacy for all those years.

“The kids come in and they believe anything,” he said, speaking to the challenges students have finding credible sources in an age when anyone can create a website and publish outright falsehoods. “It’s so hard, and it’s only getting harder and harder and harder every single day.”

He said he, too, believes the internet has something to do with the current moment of information uncertainty, but so do things like consolidation in the media industry.

“How do you start comparing information, but making sure that the main source isn’t the same company?” he said.

To help students answer that question, Crescitelli, other area teachers and the Collaborative for Educational Services built an evaluative tool a few years ago that allows educators to gauge how critically students are conducting research. The unit has students find websites that support either side of the “debate” over whether humans really ever landed on the moon. They then write a report, with sources backing their findings, saying what they think really happened.

Crescitelli, who has been teaching for 27 years, said he has particular sympathy for social studies and history teachers, who have long had to help students sift through enormous amounts of information while keeping their own politics out of their teaching.

Bruce Rubin, a social studies and history teacher at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, certainly knows that struggle.

“I absolutely believe that it’s not my job to indoctrinate, it’s my job to teach critical skills so kids can form valuable opinions,” he said. “These are contentious times, and it filters down to the students from families, so we do have to be the model of respectful debate.”

Rubin not only teaches history and social studies, but also a “theory of knowledge” course for 10th and 11th graders that is part of the school’s International Baccalaureate program. While he said there’s a heightened focus on misinformation because of the current 24-hour news cycle and the increased Balkanization of the internet, as a historian he said so-called “fake news” and the teaching of critical assessment to combat it is nothing new.

“That’s something we’ve always done, and that’s something we do throughout the grade levels,” he said about evaluating sources, the veracity of their claims and what biases they might have.

More sources

What has changed in his 16th year of teaching, he said, is the way he approaches issues like bringing current events into the classroom. With so many more news sources for students to choose from, it’s important to address claims that any one of them is or isn’t reliable.

“If they don’t have the skills with which to navigate those sources, I feel like in some way I’ve done them harm, or at the least a discredit,” he said. Luckily enough, he said, the school’s library teacher, Laura Luker, addresses the issue of information literacy across all grade levels, as well as providing professional development for educators.

It’s not only primary and secondary educators, of course, who are grappling with new ways of teaching news, internet or general information literacy.

Steve Fox, a senior lecturer and sports journalism director at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been teaching a news literacy course since 2014. He said the course, which was recently opened to all students, attempts to make students savvy news consumers by looking at important components of a news story, like the quality of sourcing and whether the writer has a vested interested in their topic.

“I think making this generation of college students more literate as far as it comes to news will help further on down the line,” Fox said. “And hopefully we’re creating a generation of voters that will be a lot more critical of information and of claims and assertions.”

Fox said he views the course as a kind of mission, and at the end of the semester urges students to “preach the word of news literacy” to their classmates, roommates, friends and families.

When asked whether he thinks that effort is working, he expressed what many of his fellow Pioneer Valley educators had also conveyed: “I sure as heck hope so!”




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