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.

McKenna Seymour 11 months ago
I'm testing my daughter in the morning! That is scary stuff, and yet sadly, I believe it.
Nelson Corn 11 months ago
In this day and age, the era of "government" leftist indoctrination we're seeing in schools, I would hardly think the class room is the place to teach our kids skills recognizing fake news. Hopefully, Betsy DeVoes will purge these so-called teachers from our class rooms. I see no reason for fourth graders to be taking lessons in gender identity or being taught that same sex marriage is the best thing since sliced bread. Let alone all the problems in the world are Republicans fault.
ALAN LUNN 11 months ago
I remember naively thinking that the Internet was going to cause a worldwide revolution in critical thinking.  I was not prepared for trolls and the massive outlay of alternative facts, hacking, propaganda and fallacy thinking.  It is so easy to fact-check and even compare various tracts of information.  Instead, many dig into their echo chambers and take up permanent residence.  Yes, young people need a healthy dose of instruction to keep them out of Internet rabbit holes.  It isn't about political polarities; it is about discernment and healthy skepticism to protect the brain from being irreversibly washed. 

Three big tests for any information:  what is the source; the simplest answer is often correct (Occam's razor); and how likely is the premise or conclusion drawn.

MICHAEL HOOPER 11 months ago
Yahoo and many other web sites try to appear like news sites, but vendors pay to have their stories run on their web sites. I used to work for Motley Fool, which paid to have its stories run on Yahoo web sites. I think a lot of readers falsely assume the stories are there because they are "important" or "newsworthy." Not so, they are there because they paid to be there.
Richard Heckler 11 months ago
Some interesting  suggestions that cover both sides of the aisle for all students ..... what is known as investigative reporting.

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Kitty Persson 10 months ago
Good grief!!!  All those are the leftist progressive equivalent of that Alex Jones character!!
Kitty Persson 10 months ago
Why not do something really radical and start not only teaching kids that the Constitution and Bill of Rights exist but include the history of same, in truth and not watered down by political agendas or erased from history entirely?  How about the events and reasoning that led to the passing of the amendments?  Not dry and boring by any stretch ...as in the 13th amendment and the story of Charles Sumner among others...
Lots of dirty laundry there but kids would also learn how to reason things out and think for themselves instead of some political party.