Is Your News Source Credible?

Go to the author's English Teacher's Page for a lesson package of resources to teach this skill.
Go to the author’s English Teacher’s Page for a lesson package of resources to teach this skill.

We teachers have failed to prepare our students for the digital age. After watching the most recent events of the presidential campaign unfold, I’ve reached the painful conclusion that I didn’t do enough to help my students master one of the most important skills for a literate person in today’s world: how to recognize whether a source is credible and objective.

I tried. Years ago I realized that teaching students why they must cite sources was much more important than teaching them where the periods and commas go in a citation. I stressed repeatedly to them, “Any idiot can put anything on the Internet.” And that was well before social media made it even more possible to express one’s unfiltered thoughts and opinions in print and video.

Now that there are apps for citations, it is easy to put the periods and commas in the right places. But what is not so easy is teaching students to recognize when propaganda on both extremes of the political spectrum is cloaked as news.

And I didn’t do that well enough. This has become painfully clear to me as I’ve watched former students and even many educated adults I know post links to videos that fact-checkers have long since labeled as false.

Much has been said about how the political climate of claim and blame has contributed to the circus that this presidential election has become. What is less obvious is that even the most conscientious of voters have a difficult time determining the agenda behind much of what parades itself as journalism.

I have sometimes spent hours trying to find the original comments or videos of sound bites that capture the attention of the media so that I can understand the entire context. I’m tenacious about going to the original source, and I’ve sometimes even found it impossible to trace quotations that are falsely attributed to historical figures, much less to find the original source of a current quotation once it starts to trend on social media.

In such a climate, our “news” ends up being more like what we hear when we’re at the end of the line in a game of gossip. With each person who filters it, what results becomes more and more distorted from fact.

Rather than tell our students not to use Wikipedia, we should be teaching them how to recognize what’s credible and what’s not when users are the ones posting the information (especially when most of us sometimes use Wikipedia). Users are often wonderful sources of information. A master gardener who has a blog is a much better source for the average gardener than a site that uses the scientific language of a botanist.

This skill is even more crucial when we are electing our leaders.  Most of the Trump supporters that I know personally are not horrible people. They are simply people who follow sites that reinforce their own views and who distrust even credible news sites about Clinton.

And most of the Clinton supporters I know are also guilty of getting their news from sites that don’t present the entire story. Just today, one liberal site reported that conservative radio host Glenn Beck had endorsed Hillary Clinton and suggested that hell may be freezing over. This version quickly began trending on social media when, in fact, the original source of the interview shows Beck saying that he could not vote for either candidate and would vote for the Constitution Party nominee.

But when we start to get our news from sites that distort information for their own purposes or interpret it through the lens of their own biases, we are at our most vulnerable. And that is the single most crucial factor in this presidential campaign.

Yes, I tried to teach my students to research responsibly. But I have to admit that I failed—or at the very least, that I didn’t succeed with enough students. And if we want our democracy to continue, we must teach our children and commit ourselves to being tenacious about checking our sources—and most especially the sources that reinforce our own views and biases.