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Fake news? Bias? How colleges teach students not to be duped

Meet the professors teaching media literacy in an increasingly complicated world.

Media literacy — some say media illiteracy — is having a moment. And professors are ready to respond.

As Election Day approached, so-called fake news seemed everywhere: intentionally false stories dressed up as news reports, misleading social-media posts, clickbait headlines, hyperpartisan opinion posing as fact.

Among the false stories' claims: Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, the NYPD was investigating Bill Clinton for sex with underage girls, and ISIS called for Muslims in America to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Google searches for "fake news" spiked this month as reporters and political observers began to autopsy the election; a Nexis search of news articles finds more than nine times as many mentions of the phrase in November over October.

"We've been needing to have these conversations for a while, so this is definitely the time," said Michael Boyle, who is developing a media-literacy course at West Chester University as part of a new undergraduate minor in media and culture. "If we're not going to do it now, then why bother?"

Boyle and other media professors said it was very early to begin determining how the election and sudden focus on media literacy should be incorporated into the classroom. Even so, as they expand their courses to meet demand and update syllabi to respond to current events, they say the core skill being taught remains the same: critical thought.

"The basic dynamic that has changed — and we would be remiss to ignore — is with social media comes a lot of responsibility," said Drew Jacobs, a Camden County College professor who has taught media literacy for more than a decade. "And our young people, they're using it."

In his Influence of Mass Media course last week, Jacobs talked about the proliferation of false news reports on Facebook and the ease with which they can spread online.

"We know the term trolling, right?" he asked.

Students laughed, then brought up examples of false and misleading stories they had seen, including one about a protester attacking a homeless person.

"What good does that do for our community?" Jacobs asked. "What good does that do for our society?"

Rachael Crismond, a sophomore studying communications, said after the class that she has become more thoughtful about the links in her news feed.

"I know now that you look for headlines that are pretty general, that don't sound biased, that don't sound like they're for or against something, they're more balanced," Crismond, 20, of Blackwood, said. "I know not to try to find information on social media … and if I am interested to Google it and look it up and see what different sources say about it."

Many people do not appear to take that approach.

A BuzzFeed analysis found that the 20 top-performing false stories on Facebook outperformed the 20 top stories from major news outlets in the three months leading up to the election.

A study released last week by Stanford University found that middle school, high school, and college students struggle to distinguish news articles from native advertising, evaluate the legitimacy of photos on the internet, and parse the reliability of a tweet from an advocacy group.

"Overall, young people's ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak," reads the study report, "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning."

Even world leaders are concerned, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel warning of a new media environment and President Obama urging caution.

"If we are not serious about facts and what's true and what's not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems," Obama said at a news conference this month.

One challenge for teaching media literacy is the speed with which new technologies emerge and habits change.

"The media landscape is moving so quickly that every year, every semester I have to update my syllabus," said Joann Lee, a communications professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.

Pat Winters Lauro, who heads the journalism program at Kean University in Union, N.J., has been teaching a graduate course on news literacy that she has adapted for undergraduate students next semester.

"It's perfect timing to launch a class in news literacy this spring," she said, "given what happened in the election."

Part of the course, Lauro said, will be journalism basics. Many are surprised to learn about journalistic codes of ethics, she said, and the attribution of facts and sourcing in stories. Showing best practices in journalism will teach students to better evaluate what they see, she said.

Jung Lee, an instructional technology professor at Stockton University, said she teaches her students to focus on key questions: Where did information come from, where are the data, are there multiple perspectives, how up-to-date is the information, who is the author, where does that person come from?

"It's not easy. They need practice for them to think critically," Lee said. Still, she is optimistic: "I emphasize: Everybody can think critically."

Sherri Hope Culver, a Temple University professor who founded its Center for Media and Information Literacy, said she sees her students' attitudes toward media change as they learn to ask critical questions.

"People can make a big leap by just having some basic foundational understanding," she said.

Bill Yousman, who heads the Media Literacy and Digital Culture Graduate Program at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, has studied college courses in media literacy and found them effective, but he notes that very few people, as a percentage of the population, will ever take such a course.

He has instead been calling for media literacy to be taught in K-12 public schools.

"At the end of the day, I think media literacy is an optimistic project," he said. "Because if we believe that it would be impossible to have any power over our media use, then why would we waste our time doing this?"