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Do You Know All You Should About “News” Feeds, Click Bait, and Credible Sources?

We’ve all seen it.  The article on social media that declares “OMG! You will never believe what [politician, celebrity, reality star] did?”  And the truth is we won’t believe it, because most likely it never happened.  Such over-the-top statements are teasers to make even the most responsible internet user stop reading to click on the story.  Click bait is only one method used to lure the reader.

Digital Literacy has become its own news worthy topic in the world of social media and online anonymity.  Whereas print journalism allowed the reader to have some assurance of professionalism with the review of editors, online information allows anyone to voice an opinion.   Every internet user needs to have the skills to evaluate and interpret online sources.  It is reported by the Pew Research and Media Center (2016) that 66% of adults polled reported to reading news from Facebook  so this skill to navigate online news sources is clearly needed throughout adulthood as well.

The need to educate internet users goes beyond students.  Google and Facebook declared this past November and December, respectively, that they will work with fact checkers to find fake news on their sites and change how they report news.  They will also change how they place ads among news stories, admitting that how they portray the news is important since click bait tactics earned more money for these fake news sites.

blue-vs-red

While this is a proactive step, individuals still must know how to evaluate web sources, navigate online tools, and whether or not their own searches and social media profile are limiting their news exposure.   For example, The Wall Street Journal’s article showing the Blue Feed vs Red Feed  results indicate that users of Facebook are limiting their news sources, but perhaps more troubling is that it shows that fake news is a growing problem.  Based on “likes” and “shares”, Facebook users inflict a self-censorship to the stories that show up on their feeds as well as the likelihood of being subjected to fake news if they have “liked” or “shared” a fake news story in the past.   

For anyone interested in teaching teens how to successfully evaluate the news there are already numerous tools available.  School Journalism provides News and Media Literary lesson plans for how to approach this topic.  Lesson plans are both for Middle School and for older students. Sources have been consolidated from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation Why News Matters initiative, the Journalism Education Association, The News Literacy Project, The Center for News Literacy at Stonybrook University, and Columbia Links.

But we can all help educate on digital literacy without memorizing a lesson plan.  I mention it whenever a student is working on finding sources for a research project or researching current events.

Media Literacy Tips (from me) That You Can Do In 5 Minutes:  

  • Look closely at the URL. Websites can be created or bought by anyone.  News websites will most likely be very short and clear on their URL.  For instance, abcnews.com is the real ABC website, whereas abcnews.com.co is not. That final “co” after the “.com” is a tell.  Similarly, look closely if there is a random number in the middle of a URL or any sign you are not directed to the main URL, but a local news site or random page.
  • Find the author. Read the About Us section or search for the organization that has posted the story.  Take the name of the group and complete a new search on the group – are they a for-profit business, nonprofit, government funded, of supported by more legitimate groups?  Do they name the staff, Board of Trustees, or Owner?
  • What is the purpose of the article? This expands from the author to truly look into what the story’s message is really saying.  If it seems extreme, it probably is.  Consider looking for a similar story from other sources, especially from the global community.  How are other news sources or organizations, not owned by businesses that have an opinion on the topic, covering the story?  Groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the BBC, and NPR will cover an issue and its global significance.
  • Is the story supported? Does the news story refer to experts in the field (check their credentials), link to legitimate organizations, or connect you to similar stories from other sources?  If there are quotes in the article, who are they from?  Are they experts in the field, a witness to the story, or a statement listed in the “comments” section?
    • Snopes Websites like Snopes are now frequently visited to check the latest news story on credibility.  In fact, this month they joined Facebook to be a 3rd party fact checker (with no financial incentives).
  • Who created the website? Websites are cheap, even “.org” sites.  Savvy internet users must know where they are getting the information.  If I am unsure, I trace the website with the previous listed options or with easywhois.com where you can enter a URL and find out the creator of the website.   Many websites that appear to be political can be traced to groups which sell domains, that is a warning that the original creator may not be what it appears.  If it is credible, an author and legitimate creator/organization would be listed, such as National Public Radio, Inc. for npr.org.
  • Image verification & Statistics. Snopes will sometimes work for images as well.  Besides that, inquisitive minds should reverse check the image on Google to see its original posting or if it is often used for various people or groups.  Libraries might also subscribe to Image databases.  While this is more import for school projects than evaluating the media, it teaches students that verifying images should be a constant thought in online searching. Likewise, graphs can be deceiving or distorted and teenagers need to know how to critically evaluate statistics and images illustrating statistics.  Just because something appears to have similarities, it does not imply they are linked together.   Correlation is different than causation.

    Thanks to Imgur.com for the image

Digital Literacy goes beyond evaluating news sources and social media, yet with the ease of sharing stories online the importance is ageless.  If the majority of readers rely on only one or two sources of information, they are both limiting themselves on the understanding of a topic and also, more importantly, they are validating their already set belief.  The danger is that readers do not realize they are inflicting self-censorship.  To truly understand a topic various sources need to be read and understood.  In the 21st century our skills of understanding and critiquing what we read must be taught, updated, and used whether beginning a Google search, clicking on that popular article on Facebook, or retweeting.  Social Media and online news outlets offer many ways to be informed.  Just remember, before you “share” it with that one touch or click, double checking its validity can often be done within a few minutes.

– Sarah Carnahan, currently reading Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer