Fake news is an idea that took off during the last presidential election and exists primarily in the realm of social media.
Is this story trustworthy?
That’s a question The Poynter Institute says students need to be taught to answer themselves.
Poynter believes one of the most effective ways to combat false stories online and bogus content on social media is through education.
Which is why the journalism education nonprofit has launched a program called MediaWise to provide free curriculum to middle schools and high schools throughout the country to teach students effective fact-checking skills.
And now the effort is getting a boost from a high-profile journalist: network news anchor Lester Holt, host of “NBC Nightly News.”
Holt is speaking to students Wednesday at a Washington, D.C., high school to promote the MediaWise campaign, which aims to reach 1 million teenagers by 2020. He agreed to become the program’s first official ambassador.
“We all recognize that there’s a lot of questions now about truth and accuracy and honesty out there,” Holt said in an interview. “It’s been a tough time in many ways for news media, so this is a chance to stand up and really address these issues in a very constructive way and create a more healthy relationship between us as the journalists and our viewers.”
Katy Byron, former managing editor of news at Snapchat and a former producer at CNN and CNBC, is serving as editor and manager of MediaWise. She said the program has been “inundated with requests” from schools for the free curriculum, which is being designed by Stanford History Education Group based on its research showing how students struggle with online news judgment and fact-checking. The material will be available this fall.
“We are trying to teach teenagers how to sort fact from fiction online,” Byron said. “This is a huge problem.”
As part of the program, two reporters, Hiwot Hailu and Allison Graves, are training a network of teens to do fact-checking through social media posts.
MediaWise got $3 million in funding from Google.org, the charitable arm of Google, which Poynter says has not attempted to influence the direction of the fact-checking initiative. Google has come under fire for its role in enabling misinformation, particularly through the circulation of conspiracy theories on YouTube and the empowerment of confirmation bias on its search platform.
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Among the tips MediaWise is promoting based on the Stanford History Education Group research is the importance of “lateral reading,” which involves seeking out alternative sources to authenticate information.
“There’s so much content on the Internet – we’re not going to be able to fact-check everything for you, so here’s the tips so you can do it yourself the next time,” Graves said.
The guide MediaWise gives to students asks three questions, Hailu said: “Who is behind the information, what is their evidence and what do other sources say?”
“We find that a lot of students are skeptical – and rightfully so,” Hailu said. “They’re online, they’re not really knowing what sources to trust, and that’s the biggest question we get.”
The principles that MediaWise is teaching to students are the same ones that journalists use, Holt said.
“We don’t just put information on the air that’s unverified. We ask the questions, we make the phone calls, we check the databases,” he said. “We put a lot into checking this before it goes onto the air.”
Holt said he became interested in the MediaWise program recently when he was in Florida being honored by Poynter and heard about the effort.
“I basically said, ‘I want in. This is something we need to be doing,’” Holt said.
In his personal life, Holt said he’s “Mr. Buzzkill” when family and friends “say, ‘hey did you hear’” something in the news.
“Because my first inclination is usually, ‘Wow, where did you hear that? What is the source of the information?’ That, in a nutshell, is what this is all about,” he said.
Holt, who will also be honored Wednesday night with the National Press Foundation’s Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, said it’s important for everyday news consumers and social media users to examine source validity and “who might benefit from this information.”
But he also said it’s critical to teach respect of journalism and that professional journalists must do a better job of explaining their processes to gain trust.
“We’ve got to figure out ways to make people understand how important what we do is – how important it is that we have this institution in society that can shine that light in places that otherwise might remain in the dark, institutions that can challenge authorities and those in power,” he said.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
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