By Alison Burns
Ph.D. Student and Adjunct Lecturer
Philip Merrill College of Journalism

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (May 31) –  A recent headline about Snoop Dogg grabbed the attention of a high school student scanning social media. It said the rap artist shot a clown who was dressed as Donald Trump. The student wanted to share the story with friends, but first did a quick online search to see if any familiar news outlets were also reporting it. It was easy to find the original source: a music video in which the rapper pretends to shoot the costumed Trump character with a toy gun.

That type of fact checking is the “new normal” for a group of Prince George’s County high school students who took part in a three-session “FACTS about fake news” workshop this spring.

As a broadcast journalist, teacher and PhD student at the University of Maryland, I created the active-learning workshop around the acronym FACTS with the goal of empowering students to recognize the value of journalism and make the fight against fake news their own.  Here’s how it works:

F – Facts about “fake news” – The workshop begins with a warning from the instructor to students about how a “toxic stew of misinformation” online is “threatening to poison their thoughts, manipulate and fool them.” Students watch a video from NBC News about teenagers from other countries who are cashing in by writing fake stories to fool what the writers call “gullible” Americans. The students read reports about U.S. intelligence agencies alleging that Russia tried to sabotage the election by planting fake stories. They also read research about fake news, including a report from Buzzfeed that fake stories generated more engagement on Facebook ahead of the election than real news. Students write their own definitions of “fake news” and work in small groups to discuss and list the potential consequences of being fooled by fake stories.

A – Assessing accuracy – Students watch a short video from Factcheck.org outlining simple fact-checking strategies: Is there a byline? What are other publications saying about the story? Do the sources seem biased or credible? Is it satire or a joke? Are the facts based on evidence or opinions? The students read fake stories on the fact-checking site Snopes and compile their own lists of clues that a story might not be credible. Among the clues that a story is fake (aside from being debunked by a fact-checking site): the headline is misleading, the author is anonymous, the site hosting the story has a name similar to a more recognized news site, and other stories on the site are overtly biased or exaggerated. The students discovered grammar problems, misspellings, and overuse of exclamation points are a few other telltale signs of fake stories!!!

C – Caring about credibility – Students watch examples of powerful reporting about community safety issues, discuss the value of journalism and write down what they want and expect in a credible news story.  Students create their own lists of “essential ingredients of real news,” including evidence-based facts, unbiased reporting, and a variety of sources. By establishing their own gold standard for credibility, students have a personal benchmark for news quality. They also discuss the ideal professional qualities of journalists and specify the virtues and traits of journalists compared to writers of deceptive stories, for example journalists admit mistakes and follow standards of ethics.

TS – Taking a stand – At the conclusion of the workshop, students write their own personal pledges to assess the accuracy of stories before sharing them. One student wrote, “I pledge to only share reliable news, and to never cite or spread suspicious news I haven’t fact checked.”

Student note : "I pledge to only share reliable news, and to never cite or share suspicious news I haven’t fact checked."

Workshop “Opened My Eyes.”

A few days after the spring workshop, students completed a questionnaire. All of the students said the workshop was effective. Among the comments: “it opened my eyes,” “now I know several good fact checking sites that I can visit,” and “the classes gave me more concrete ideas of what to look for when deciding if a story is likely to be fake.”

Students had largely similar definitions of “fake news,” including “misinformation designed to intentionally mislead the reader,” “news that is not true,” and “news that presents false-facts.”

Most of the students who participated in the workshop said they were very concerned about fake news because of its potential influence on people other than themselves, “because a lot of people believe that ‘fake news’ is real.” One student wrote “I’m very concerned because fake news can affect people’s opinions if they are unaware of the news being fake or not.” Another student wrote, “I am very skeptical of articles, so I am not worried about falling for them. I am concerned, however, for people who are less skeptical.”

Most of the students said they were very confident in their own ability to detect fake news, yet some had not used fact-checking sites like Factcheck.org or Snopes.

Getting the Truth Out is “Super Important.”

Nearly all of the students who participated in the workshop said it had a positive effect on their view of journalism. Among the comments: “I think free press is a founding principle of this country and fake news infringes on that,” and “The classes have only strengthened my previously held beliefs. I still think journalism and getting the truth out is super important because having an uninformed population is dangerous.”

The workshop includes elements commonly taught as part of a news literacy curriculum, including journalistic fact-checking techniques, a discussion of how to identify bias, and a review of the motivators for the authors of fake news. News literacy researchers have also emphasized the importance of finding ways to motivate students to care about the credibility of news content. This workshop not only encouraged students to recognize the potential benefits of good journalism, but also helped them discover the potential dangers of fake news.

Letting teens know how they’re being duped and manipulated is a proven way to get them to pay attention, as anti-smoking groups discovered in the late 1990’s when they launched the “Truth” campaign that revealed how tobacco companies were manipulating kids. Anti-smoking advocates and health researchers credited that campaign with a significant drop in teen smoking rates. Education writer Annie Murphy Paul urges a similar strategy when it comes to motivating teens to care about how their attention could be exploited online. She warns against boring lectures and suggests an approach that empowers students. “Although there have been some attempts to teach students ‘critical thinking skills’ with respect to the web, too often these programs adopt a  sanctimonious tone, with all the rebellious appeal of extra-credit study hall,” Paul writes.

The majority of students who participated in the workshop were high school seniors. Several of them suggested it could be more effective to deliver the workshop to even younger students who might be more likely to fall for deceptive stories online.

Future Plans for “FACTS.”

Merrill College researchers are hoping to reach more high school and middle school students, possibly by deploying journalism graduate students to deliver the workshops throughout the state. While expanding the workshops, researchers will also be exploring other ways to help students assess accuracy and motivate them to care about the credibility of news stories.

Even though the students who participated in the workshop generally seemed to believe people other than themselves are more vulnerable to fake news than they are, empowering young people to appreciate “good” journalism and play a role in stopping the dissemination of fake news is a boost for credible news outlets and a step toward a healthier democracy.