Student journalists show the Right Stuff to solve the problem of Fake News

“All lies and jest. Still, a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.” — Paul Simon, “The Boxer,” 1969.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election brought attention to a “fake” news “epidemic” that traces back to the Garden of Eden. All that has changed since then is that when Eve tempted Adam with an apple, Adam didn’t have 10,000 followers on social media with whom to share the wondrous properties of forbidden apples.

Most of the attention has focused on “fake” websites, of recent vintage, that were created solely for the purpose of wholly misleading the public. Activists have called on Facebook, Google and other technology companies to “fix” the problem, while others have published “checklists” of steps that can be taken to assess the validity of a report.

In short, it’s all about having the right attitude, and the “right stuff” to find the truth.

Yet fake news comes in all forms, and can appear anywhere; even in widely trusted, authoritative, mainstream media. Indeed, as student journalists from a high school school in Kansas recently showed, sometimes it’s issued by your own school district — and the answer to seeing through it lies in our heads and in our hearts, and not in any tech fix or checklist. In short, it’s all about having the right attitude, and the “right stuff” to find the truth.

After the district announced the hiring of a new principal for the high school, these student journalists investigated her background — something that, evidently, none of the 25+ adults who participated in the hiring decision had done. Trina Paul, a student editor at Pittsburg High School’s newspaper, The Booster Redux, told The Kansas City Star, “She was going to be the head of our school, and we wanted (to) be assured that she was qualified and had the proper credentials.”

“Some things that most might not consider legitimate credentials.”

With a simple Google search, the students uncovered a 2012 article on the Gulf News website that raised substantial doubts about the new principal. With a little further digging, they also founds dozens of allegations that the institution from which the principal obtained two advanced degrees is an unaccredited “diploma mill.” As student Trina Paul diplomatically told the Kansas City Star, these are “some things that most might not consider legitimate credentials.”

These brave students persisted in their pursuit of the truth even after their superintendent defended the hiring principal, mostly by relying on things he had been told or conclusions drawn by other people. An assumption that surely someone else had conducted due diligence is at the nexus of so many scandals; it is what led so many otherwise shrewd investors to trust money to Bernie Madoff.

So how do we engender the necessary attitude and other “stuff” necessary to see beyond the surface and reach the truth?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ― Aristotle, Metaphysics.

We must think critically about the sources we encounter and mindfully decide how much credibility to grant each one, as we draw from the best to create our own synthesized work.

  • Effective critical thinking is an essential and challenging skill that must be modeled, demonstrated and practiced over and over, for many years.
  • When I present this topic, I engage the audience in a conversation about detectives, and the work detectives do.
  • I guide the audience to recognize the similarities between good reading and research, and great detective work.

Much like a detective’s troublesome witnesses, news sources will try to mislead them. So, just like good detectives, good researchers:

  • Are skeptical and doggedly determined to get to the truth. To good researchers, sources are not authoritative, and statements are not true, unless they can cogently state the logical reasons they are.
  • “Interrogate” each source to determine its authority, objectivity and relevance to their task. They ask who wrote an article, why they wrote it, and when they wrote it, and pore through clues until they find an authoritative answer.
  • Never accept the first thing that “looks good,” or “sounds good,” “answers” their question or confirms their pre-disposed view. They remain mindful of their biases as they research and persist until a topic has been thoroughly researched.
  • Fairly weigh all of the evidence to draw logical conclusions.
  • Borrow parts of several sources to synthesize their own cohesive work.

While technology will never fully solve this problem, it can make it easier for a person with the right attitude to discern the truth:

  • SweetSearch, our selective search engine, leverages Google’s technology to search only a large whitelist of sites.
  • In a few weeks, we will introduce SweetSearch News, which will search only a whitelist of 500+ sources, and will endeavor not to skew results to the largest publications. Foreign English language news sources will be more prominent than in an ordinary Google search.
  • Google News searches a much more expansive collection of approved news resources.

Here are some content resources, created especially for educators and students:

  • In early Summer, we will publish a full online course on how to be an effective researcher. It will greatly expand upon this post.
  • This post from The New York Times Learning Network offers ready-made lessons about Fake News.
  • Angela Maiers’ Classroom Habitudes is a book that every classroom teacher should read. It offers lessons on how to instill seven essential “habits and attitudes” in every student: Imagination, Curiosity, Self-awareness, Adaptability, Perseverance, Passion, and Course. Each of these traits is found in every outstanding researcher, and indeed, in most successful people.
  • Read this piece on why educators must be at the forefront of modeling responsible social sharing. If you don’t know it’s true, don’t share it!
  • School librarian Joyce Valenza published this piece, which offers terrific insight and links to a bevy of other resources.
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