My phone’s screensaver reveals a photo I took this summer at a campsite in Maine. It shows a homemade wooden sign leaned up against an RV, and the sign features seven simple words: “Believe There is Good in the World.” It’s safe to say that 2016 has tested that belief for many of us. The latest reason to hope for a swift end to 2016 comes in the form of two simple words: “fake news.”
The flurry of stories about make-believe news stories has been fast and furious in recent weeks. As a teacher of three levels of journalism classes, I have been on top of addressing it. For all three grades, we discussed the reality that entrepreneurial writers from America to Macedonia are creating fake news sites that pop up on our social-media feeds, and which people are either believing without question or sharing with the knowledge that others will believe fall for the con.
The 2016 version of fake news has been political in nature, and it’s much different than the satirical fake news of The Onion or The Daily Show. In this case, the point of the fake news is to convince you that it’s real, through disguise. Check out the real ABC news site, at abcnews.go.com, then click over to a fake ABC news site, at abcnews.com.co, and you’ll see the difference. One site informs, while the other misleads. The consequences of this storytelling was made clear last Sunday, when a man showed up at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, armed and ready to take on the restaurant. The reason? He had read fake news stories alleging that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief of staff were running a child pornography ring out of this pizzeria.
By the time the pizza story broke, my Journalism II students were ready to write. They crafted opinion pieces about fake news, and in their stories they took on all responsible parties – the writers of fake news, the social media outlets that serve as a conduit for the sharing of such news, and the readers who fail to fact-check before passing the stories along. Many of my students were angry that journalism, a profession so important to our democracy, could be tarnished by such unethical practices.
They made connections to The Crucible, which many of them had just read for their English classes. Just as those in Salem, Mass., who accused others of witchcraft in 1692 were able to insist that they saw the devil next to the accused, so can conspiracy theorists of 2016 insist that the fake news is really based in truth, and that traditional media just don’t want you to know about what’s really happening. They can insist that all news is fake, and that we can trust none of it. And as this spirals on, the mischief-makers are not held accountable, and we grow even more polarized and angry at one another.
My senior-year journalism students put two reporters on the fake news story for our school newspaper, and they got in touch with one of the more prominent fake news writers in America. He told them that fake news makes people question their news and fact-check what they read, and that he’s still thinking about its impact on the election. When asked if he regretted what he wrote, his response was clear: “No.”
As educators, our focus is on the kids we teach every day, and in that I see a path forward. Our humanities instruction focuses on reading, writing and history, but it’s time that we add a strong media literacy component to that equation. We have students who can analyze the symbolism in a novel incredibly well, but who struggle to identify reputable sources and who gain their news from social media sites that traffic in incomplete stories and, yes, fake ones.
If every high school student took a media literacy course, we’d be taking a giant step forward toward ensuring that American teens know the difference between what’s real and what’s not, not to mention who owns the media they consume, how their privacy settings work and how they are tracked each day on those devices they love so much.
So back to that screensaver with the hopeful photo on it: Is that, too, an example of fake news? Is the good really out there? After watching my students learn, think and write about this divisive and toxic news phenomenon this past week, I can tell you that I absolutely do believe there is good in the world. Knowledge is power, and knowledge with integrity provides hope for the world, young journalists included. That’s the real scoop.