by Stephanie Vatz
In 2015, a year before murmurs of “fake news” became omnipresent, textbook publisher McGraw-Hill was under fire for a World Geography book illustration. The section, on patterns of immigration throughout American history, referred to a wave of “immigration” in which African “workers” arrived in the United States. Parents, students and teachers were outraged by the sugarcoated and outright false history of slavery being shared in classrooms across Texas. This was one incident of false information making its way into schools, but it was far from the first or last.
Clickbait headlines and polarizing politics have made it a daunting challenge for teachers to find factual, reliable information inside and outside of the classroom. A class needs to share a foundation of truth. Without this mutually agreed-upon foundation, there is no ground for a teacher to stand on. If a textbook can be wrong, so can a teacher.
Fact-checking and looking for bias are no longer just skills needed in journalism class or at the school paper. They should be skills learned for every class from science to social studies.
Here are 5 editor-approved tips for teaching these skills to students across curriculum and subjects:
This is something journalists often have to think about. If a reporter begins work on a story with a bunch of preconceived notions, it can color the questions that they ask during interviews and even who they choose to interview. This applies to readers as well.
Before reading something on a controversial issue, ask yourself and your students:
What do you hope the text you’re reading will say?
What would it take for you to completely change your belief about this issue?
This will help you temper your own opinions by acknowledging that they exist. It will also help teach students that the bias they share is the hardest to catch. During a quick read, an article may only appear biased if the bias goes against their personal views.
Have a conversation as a class about what types of people in your life you can trust. Can we trust a scientist? A doctor? A teacher? What are the motivations of these individuals or groups you are deciding to put trust in? Note whether there is anything these people or groups have to gain by sharing information. Also be discerning about whether they are the best person to share this information.
Keep in mind that not all students are raised to trust scientists or doctors — and for good reason. The scientific community has not always been ethical or right. They performed dangerous medical experiments on slaves and later on poor black people to test drugs and treatments. A degree or education is not enough to make someone trustworthy.
A class needs to share a foundation of truth.
There’s an old saying in the journalism world: “If your mother tells you she loves you, tell her to prove it.” Once you’ve agreed on who or what to trust, you should still fact-check the things they say. There’s no perfect source that is going to be right 100 percent of the time. Instead, try to find multiple sources you trust and use them to keep the others in check. Try to find at least two to three sources to corroborate whatever fact you are trying to check. Here are some sources trusted by the folks at ISTE.
A good journalist or researcher is transparent. They let you know where their information came from and how they found it. If the writer is not citing her sources, check for footnotes or a list of resources at the back of the book or end of the article. If you can’t find that, it’s time to start fact checking. This great fact-checking resource from Ballotpedia can tell you how.
There are dozens of types of articles. Feature articles, opinion pieces, editorials, news features, straightforward news, sponsored content… the list goes on. When you first start reading an article, work with your students to categorize it. For example, if you are reading an opinion piece, it’s important to know what argument the author is making. An opinion may still contain accurate facts and statistics. But the author is strategically choosing which statistics or facts to present.
By giving a name to the type of story, you set rules for the author. You figure out how much bias, humor or personality they are allowed to show. Once those rules are set, you can figure out when the writer is truly breaking them.
Stephanie Vatz is the Managing Editor at Newsela, an Instructional Content Platform that is a top source of nonfiction content for classrooms across the U.S. Find her on Twitter @stephvatz.
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