A shark attacked a woman who was trying to save a bleeding seal. Or so claimed a blog in an article projected on the classroom wall.
Most of the children at the school in Aliso Viejo, 80 kilometres south of Los Angeles, had seen the news on social media or heard about it on the playground. Now, their assignment is to figure out if it’s true.
“Sounds fake,” says one student tentatively.
“It sounded like there was a lot of opinion and not a lot of facts, so it made me wonder if this was really truly news,” says educator Diana Graber.
As a member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, Graber developed a media literacy curriculum that’s being widely used in California schools for the generation that, she says, will likely never end up getting their information from “the 6 o’clock news.”
Online myths and rumours are as old as dial-up modems. But now, she says, fake news is not only everywhere, it’s often orchestrated and well-funded.
“The internet is not an easy tool, and that’s why it’s important to have lessons every week for three years to learn how to use it well,” Graber says.
“These are lessons that are important to learn now — and then start practising them through high school.”
In the first full school year since President Donald Trump’s election and the advent of “fake news,” a growing number of schools in several U.S. states are making media literacy compulsory priorities like science and math.
“It’s nice to see that the states are finally following suit and passing this legislation that will require lessons like this to be taught in every classroom,” Graber says.
According to Yalda Uhls of Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving media literacy, in 2017 four states passed media literacy legislation: Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Mexico, and the state Uhls considers the leader in the field, Washington. Two proposed media literacy bills have failed in California, but Uhls says Common Sense Media will continue to lobby for legislation in the state.
“Kids spend nine hours a day outside of school consuming media every day of the week in America,” Uhls says. “They need to learn how to use it. It is the new literacy and the underlying concept for news literacy is critical thinking. So it applies to everything.”
At Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Los Angeles, named for the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan in 2002, teacher Adriana Chavira is talking about a photo apparently from the August riots in Charlottesville.
“That photo was an old one, it had nothing to do with Charlottesville,” she says. “Some of you may have even reweeted it without knowing that they’re fake.”
“I’m really gullible, so like I thought it was true,” says one student, smiling ruefully.
Chavira says her students’ reliance on social media for news makes prophylaxis against fake news a Sisyphean challenge.
“Kids are on their phones all the time, so they’re bombarded with news all the time,” Chavira says. “And so they need to start learning how to decipher what’s reliable and what isn’t reliable.”
Even the term “fake news” itself is becoming less reliable, as politicians of both parties use it to dismiss unflattering stories in the media. But according to UCLA professor Jeff Share, the focus on fake news education has increased since Trump became president.
“He’s really taken it to another level, the whole idea of just blatantly lying and saying things that everybody can obviously see and know as not being true,” Share says.
Share instructs many of California’s teachers how to teach media literacy. And turns out, much of the material he’s using comes from Canada.
“Here’s a book published by the Ontario Ministry of Education,” Share says, pulling a volume from his bookshelf. It’s just one example, he says, of Canada’s excellence in the field of media literacy.
“Maybe it’s an arrogance of the United States being the dominant media producer that this arrogance oftentimes doesn’t look critically at itself, whereas Canada has been influenced — has been bombarded with — a lot of U.S. media all the time and seen just how problematic it is,” Share says.
Could cut funding
“I think because of that, the radar in Canada is far better in terms of sensing when there is BS or when something is not quite the way it should be.”
Now, however, there’s a new concern. Uhls says the Trump administration could stymie the states’ media literacy measures by cutting access to vital federal funding.
“They can still pass the bills and they can still create the task forces, the advisory councils, they can still create the resources, but they won’t be able to access that funding,” Uhls says.
“And if that happens, that would be a real shame, because that is motivating a lot of this.”
At the end Graber’s class in Aliso Viejo, a mantra of sorts emerges.
Wariness is useful
“In this age of increasingly powerful machines, let’s learn to use the incredible powers within,” the class intones.
“This class makes me paranoid about fake news,” said Grade 8 student Lulu Utterback after class, laughing. “It makes me worried that everything’s fake.”
At an early age, such wariness is useful. But Graber says the big pay-off may only come years later, when these eight-graders are making crucial decisions based on their perception of what’s real and what’s not.
“Kids that are now in college say ‘this is stuff that I draw on again and again, and I don’t even really remember where I learned it.’ But there are just certain aspects that they’re not going to forget because we’ve practised it so many times.”