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Faking Out Fake News

Fake News

Enhanced programming helps students navigate complex media landscape

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Most Americans are confident in their ability to spot fake news, but as we’ve seen in a recent Stanford study of high school and college students—and in 2016’s “Pizzagate” disaster—our true abilities often don’t stack up. In a charged, changing media landscape, with new posts and articles arriving in our digital worlds by the minute, how do we know what to believe?

The staff at Dickinson’s Waidner-Sphar Library is on the case, developing new teaching modules and classroom exercises to help students become savvy news consumers and better-informed citizens. The new program is called "Evaluating Sources in the Contemporary Information Landscape,” and it offers a four-pronged approach to information literacy in the information age.

Four-pronged approach

Launching in fall 2017, the programming expands on Dickinson’s existing information literacy instruction, which prepares students in First-Year Seminars for college-level research. Through in-class exercises and homework assignments focusing on news and source evaluation, students learn to define, compare and contrast factors that might affect their information landscapes, such as perspectives and information silos. They also learn to explain how context affects information’s credibility and use, and how to apply this knowledge as they determine the validity of a source and the information it presents.

Library staff also are planning public events on information literacy and fake news and are collaborating with the Norman M. Eberly Writing Center to develop a related Writing in the Disciplines curriculum. And liaison librarians have already begun to work with faculty to plan classes and assignments that bring new-media information literacy into classrooms across the curriculum.

A delicious assessment

Electronic Resources & Web Services Librarian Jessica Howard '01 provided that service last February, when she partnered with Maiko Arashiro, a postdoctoral fellow in environmental studies, to present a lab lesson for Arashiro’s environmental-health students.

The lesson centered on “Study Claims Nutella Can Cause Cancer,” a video published just weeks earlier on the USA Today website, and one of several reports on a 2016 study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on the toxicity of vegetable oils. In the study, the EFSA found that a chemical group found in high concentrations in palm oil could be considered carcinogenic. The USA Today article reported that palm oil is found in Nutella, a hazelnut spread manufactured by Ferrero, and concluded that Nutella could therefore be considered unsafe.

After watching the USA Today video, the students worked in pairs to pinpoint the original source of the information, determine its main findings and evaluate the video in light of their research. They learned that Nutella does contain palm oil, and that palm oil could be considered carcinogenic when heated to high temperatures, at high concentrations, as reported by the EFSA—a fact they could verify, using Dickinson’s library subscriptions to scientific journals—but also that the oil never reached sufficient temperatures during Ferrero’s manufacturing process to become toxic. A report by the manufacturer stated that systems were in place to ensure that safe conditions were maintained.

In light of this research, the students concluded that the USA Today video did not qualify as fake news, since it provided some accurate information and was not intentionally false. But they noted that its title was misleading and some of its claims were erroneous. “The students were really engaged with the discussion,” says Howard, “and the class provided thoughtful observations about the challenges of communicating highly technical information, including scientific research, to the public, and the important nuance that is often lost along the way.”

This activity can be scaled for students at varying levels, and can be compressed into 15- to 20-minute lessons as part of the broader information literacy session, notes Eleanor Mitchell, director of the Waidner-Spahr Library. She adds that as critical as it has always been for educational institutions to offer instruction on information literacy, exercises like this become even more crucial pathways to engaged citizenship as new methods of information delivery and dissemination, and new targeting methods for advertisements and news stories, continue to emerge.

“With the flood of information available on the web and through social media, people are overwhelmed by news, opinions and other forms of information, often of dubious quality, and sometimes intentionally false or malicious, with the intent to persuade the viewer,” Mitchell explains. “A better understanding of how credibility is established in context will help our students gain a clearer understanding of the world and the challenges we face, including social injustice and climate change, and that will help prepare students for lives of civic engagement.”

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Published June 9, 2017