Why we must teach students to recognize news — our democracy depends upon it

By Janine Zacharia | Aug. 31, 2017

A fragmented media landscape populated by news outlets and impostor outlets that abide by different journalistic standards has transformed what was once a basic task — reading the daily news — into a major challenge. In an era of unprecedented access to information, we are experiencing an unprecedented era of noise.

After spending nearly two decades reporting for national and international news outlets on foreign affairs, I’ve spent the past five teaching Stanford University students how to report, write and understand the news. Today, I don’t have to only encourage them to read the news, I need to teach them how to do so.

Consuming the news is only going to become more complex if we don’t educate people about the difference between credible fact-based reporting and its opposite. It goes beyond the written word.

Recent stories show how video and photos are manipulated to further confuse the digital news consumer. “New Lip-Syncing Technology Lets Researchers Put Words in Barack Obama’s Mouth,” Time reported. “As doctored photos flood the Internet, human vision struggles to keep up,” the Los Angeles Times wrote.

To combat this, we need to make sure that everyone with a smart phone — before he or she taps to share a story — has the critical thinking skills and training to determine what is real and what is bunk. Media literacy is already being taught in some schools and there are countless initiatives to formulate new curricula for teachers. But from conversations with my students, it’s clear that many even at this elite institution get depressingly little or absolutely nothing on this front in high school. Slotting it into crowded class schedules won’t be simple. But I would argue that teaching students how to consume digital information should be considered as essential as teaching math or coding or Spanish.

And it shouldn’t be hard or time consuming. There are plenty of tutorials on how to spot fake news and everyone — parents and teens alike — should study how to do this basic sleuthing on stories that seem like they may be masquerading as real but are made up. Silicon Valley platforms like Facebook and Twitter played a role in creating this problem by helping to disseminate fake news and have the tools to help design a solution and circulate the lessons more broadly.

After initially dismissing the notion that fake news spread via Facebook impacted the 2016 presidential election outcome, CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to be taking the problem more seriously. In April, the company released (a bit too quietly, I believe) a report on fake news and included the acknowledgment that the company must expand its “security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.” Facebook is now tackling the problem with machine learning and by removing financial incentives for creating the stories in the first place. On Aug. 28, the company announced it will block publishers from the platform that share fake news.

This is critical. Facebook is the main player in the way people share and consume news, and such steps will go a long way to stopping the spread of misinformation that can corrupt the way people think and vote even if it cannot eliminate it completely.

The more confounding challenge is how, when the American president routinely attacks news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, we restore a respect and appreciation for real journalism and its importance to our democracy.

At his Phoenix rally in late August, President Trump repeatedly attacked the “truly dishonest people in the media,” and repeated a favorite canard — that all unnamed sources are made up. “They say ‘a source says’ — there is no such thing,” Trump told the crowd.

How can journalists effectively push back against this? I teach my students how to verify information and report in the most rigorous, accountable way — including the rules of attribution for using unnamed sources, a lesson we cover in in the first class. As a result, they develop an understanding and respect for journalism done well. Can we explore ways to teach these skills at scale?

Another idea is to spearhead local interactions between journalists and citizens that can help reverse the dangerous demonization of reporters. There are fewer journalists, especially on the local level (see Paul Farhi’s excellent piece in the Washington Post on how this is playing out in East Palo Alto — a town that receives barely any news coverage). Still, journalists are out there — just look at the breathtaking local coverage coming out of Houston for evidence.

Invite a local journalist to your community or school and make sure you bring neighbors or friends who believe all news is fake or biased. In-person encounters can help reduce hostility toward journalists by helping the public better understand the way credible journalists do their job. Face-to-face meet-ups also would help reporters write better stories by providing a direct way for them to build new sources and bring in more voices in their coverage zones.

When I reported daily on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would sometimes receive critical or hate emails from readers. To even the most hostile notes, I would respond, “Thank you for your feedback.” The tone of the writer’s response was instantly softened once the writer was acknowledged, opening up a space for dialogue.

Helping people navigate a complicated information landscape is key to our democracy. Teaching the rules that credible news organizations employ or meeting a local journalist could help. Siloed social media feeds will make it hard to reach people who won’t want to be reached. For-profit cable news that maddeningly blurs reporting with entertainment and prioritizes horse-race coverage over explaining why a story truly matters could continue to erode the public’s respect for journalism. And a president who routinely tries to discredit the national news media may make it seem like a fool’s errand.

But none of these arguments makes me think that the alternative — doing nothing — is preferable. Only that the task is more urgent. We can’t let the ridiculous notions that we live in a “post-fact world” or that “the mainstream media is fake” go unchallenged. For now, the credibility of real reported information is under threat and with it our democracy. But with leadership and focus, it is a solvable problem.

6 things you can do now

1. Teach yourself how to spot fake news.

2. Subscribe to a national and to a local news outlet that report reputable, credible news.

3. Contribute to public media.

4. Reach out to a journalist and arrange a meet-up for your community.

5. Encourage your local schools to teach media literacy.

6. Urge your congressional representative and senator to condemn President Trump’s demonization of the news media and continuing assault on a free press.

Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief, is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.