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How to Help Your Kids Recognize Fake News

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As parents, we know there are a set of basic life skills and lessons we need to teach our children to help them become safe, healthy, and productive members of society. One of the challenges of parenting is keeping up with the ways the world and our culture are changing and adjusting these parenting lessons accordingly. It never fails: once it seems like we have everything figured out, the ground shifts and we need new tools and methods to help keep our kids on the right path.

The latest challenge we’re facing? The recent onslaught of fake news. This problem was brought to the forefront during the 2016 Presidential election and isn’t likely to go away any time soon.  Fake and misleading news isn’t necessarily a new thing. However, what has changed is that our kids have technology at their fingertips that makes it easier for them to receive bad or misleading information on a daily basis. This can be especially problematic since young people turn to the Internet for research and information during their academic careers. 

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Kids’ inability to distinguish real news from fake news is a troubling trend. A recent study from Stanford University found that a large majority of students were unable to tell the difference. (It’s worth noting that this study began in January 2015, well before the fake news controversies that have been highlighted recently.) The study examined data and responses from 7,800 middle school, high school and college students in 12 states.

We want our kids to be well-educated and informed citizens. So how do we teach them media literacy tactics to help them think critically about the information they receive? How do we teach our kids (and ourselves) to differentiate fact vs. fiction and fact vs. opinion? 

Raising well-educated and well-informed kids is more important now than ever. Knowledge is power, and learning to differentiate real news from fake will insure that future generations will be prepared for what comes next in our culture and society.


Tips to help your kids recognize fake news sources:

1. Check the source.

Since legacy news organizations are required to adhere to a set of journalistic standards and principles, they are still the best sources for news and information. Certainly, some criticism of mainstream media outlets is valid, and some news organizations blur the line between fact and opinion. However, even biased outlets such as MSNBC and Fox News have to adhere to basic journalistic principles. If more than one legacy news organization has the story, it’s probably accurate.

Sometimes it can be tricky to tell if a source is reliable, as fake news sites often have reliable sounding names. (Some examples include “National Report” “Global Associated News” and “Boston Tribune.”) If you are unsure, checking the contact info and the “about” page is a good place to start. In addition, look for any disclaimers regarding content on the website. (These can sometimes be tricky to find as they may be buried within the site.) It’s also important to look for who is sponsoring the piece. Content may seem reliable, but it may be created or sponsored by a company whose goal is to sell a product or service.

One side note: just because mainstream news outlets aren’t reporting on a story doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it does require that you dig deeper for more information from reliable sources.

2. Examine the URL.

This can be a crucial yet easily overlooked indicator of a fake news website. In a nutshell, a website’s domain suffix helps indicate what type of website is being hosted at the domain. For example, suffixes such as “.edu,” “.gov,” and “.org”  represent education, government, and non-profit organizations respectively.

However, some fake news sites trick people by utilizing domains that have the names of legit news organizations included in their URL but tack on an additional suffix such as “.co” or “.su.”   (The site http://abcnews.com.co/ is one example of this.) This example is especially tricky, because it mimics the name and design elements of the real ABC News. There are several other fake news sites  that employ the same tactic.

3. Look critically at all elements of the piece.

Start with the quality of the writing: Does the content contain glaring grammatical or punctuation errors? Are there words in all caps? If the writer makes bold claims, are they backed up with reputable sources? Are the images sourced? Does the title seem like it’s meant to provide information or generate clicks? 

In addition, encourage your kids to look for sensationalized words and phrases within the piece. Does the content attempt to incite strong emotions or advocate heavily for a certain position? These are indicators that the author or source wants readers to feel a certain way about a topic.

4. Learn the different types of fake news stories.

While I chuckle at the satire of outlets such as The Onion and Clickhole, kids might not understand that sites like these do not contain real news. In addition to satire and straight up fake news, there are also sites that specialize in misleading news. These are especially tricky, as they grab on to a thread of truth and twist and/or distort the facts.

5. Check your own bias.

This is an extremely important lesson for both kids and adults, as it contributes to the “echo chamber” effect. For example, if you only click on stories that confirm your opinion on Facebook, the algorithm will only show you these kinds of stories.

Giving in to our confirmation bias can be comforting. It can affirm our belief that our opinions are the only ones that are valid. However, it’s problematic because it also shuts out relevant and truthful information that doesn’t. There’s no simple answer for this. If we really are interested in being well-informed, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable with accepting information that may not align with our worldview. 

6. Familiarize yourself with fact-checking sites.

There are several non-biased, non-partisan sites that are actively working to check all forms of news, real and fake. Some of the most reputable fact-checking sources include FactCheck.org, Politifact (this one includes plenty of stuff I don’t like, but I frequently check it!), Snopes.com, and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.

Raising well-educated and well-informed kids is more important now than ever. Knowledge is power, and learning to differentiate real news from fake will insure that future generations will be prepared for what comes next in our culture and society.

 

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