Editorial: Students struggle to identify legitimate news

Without the ability to determine what’s real and fake online, civic engagement will suffer

The homepage of Slate.com on March 20, 2017. A study found more than 80 percent of students conflated native advertising with actual articles on the homepage of Slate. (Screenshot)

According to a 2009 report issued by the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force, 70 percent of teachers assign homework that can’t be completed without an Internet connection (a number that has almost certainly risen over the past eight years). Moreover, the Speak Up 2015 Research Project found that 68 percent of students say they need “safe and consistent Internet access outside of school to be successful in school.” Almost all high school students use the Internet for classwork at some point, and roughly half use it every day.


With such a vast and growing reliance on the Internet in education, it’s essential to make sure students know how to conduct online research properly. This is why educators, parents and journalists across the country should be disturbed about a recent study conducted by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. One sentence from the executive summary says it all: “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

The authors of the study wanted to determine if students could identify reliable sources, distinguish news stories from advertisements, recognize illegitimate news sites and social media profiles, and make other reasonable judgments about the veracity of online material. Their findings were consistently alarming: “In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.”

For example, more than 80 percent of the students who took part in the survey conflated native advertising (promotional material designed to look like a real news story) with actual articles on the homepage of Slate Magazine – even when the words “sponsored content” were prominently displayed. When students were asked to examine stories posted on Facebook by Fox News and a dubious source that resembled Fox News, more than 30 percent of them “argued that the fake account was more trustworthy because of some key graphic elements that it included.” Seventy-five percent of students didn’t notice the blue verification icon on the real Fox News page.

The Stanford researchers are right to worry that “democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.” Without well-informed citizens, it would be impossible to hold government officials accountable, have productive discussions about public policy and reach compromises on contentious issues (the most fundamental requirement of our slow-moving political system). The civic health of our country will inevitably deteriorate if we can’t agree upon basic facts.

Moreover, fake news is often hyper-partisan. When people sequester themselves in ideological bubbles online, the information they rely upon is often skewed to conform to a political agenda. This makes it easier for them to be misled by politicians who automatically dismiss criticism as politically motivated.

With so many students using the Internet and the increasing prevalence of “fake news” outlets, it has never been more important to emphasize online research skills in the classroom.

Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Hosman, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.



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