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The Ultimate Guide to Teaching Source Credibility

The Context: Why are we doing this?

A new adversary in the world of facts-driven logic and decision-making has been rearing its ugly head across our social media pages these days: fake news. It’s a threat to education, and it is a threat to nurturing a knowledgeable society. Everyone from our celebrity elite to our President-Elect has fallen prey to the allure of sensationalist, heavily biased, and deceiving information online. And the trend is likely to continue. Although social media giants like Facebook and Google are doing what they can to curb the amount of false information entering their feeds, the lack of regulation around this sort of enterprise means we’ll have to teach students how to better discern and become smarter consumers of information. 

And yet, these things are new to us all. Education World has cut through the hogwash with this resource roundup, to give you all the tools you need to make sure your students can access the most credible and reliable sources of information for the years ahead.

The Roots of “Fake News”

The discussion of fake news often starts with addressing the role and function of satire. Satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” And it has played a very important role in our political and social landscape. Unfortunately, satirical sites like The Onion and CAP News—which are intentionally and unabashedly satire, meant solely for entertainment purposes—are often mistakenly taken as genuine. Thus begins the problem.

Next, students should understand that some “news” is created with the direct intention of tricking the reader. In order to help students to understand the purpose of this sort of non-satirical “fake news” (past novel pranking), you might review this investigational piece by NPR that highlights the financial gains and other motivations associated with creating and spreading fake news. The report tracks down a fake news “godfather” and inquires about the shady practice. Clicks can yield some serious income, but as this interview suggests, they can also help to greatly sway political opinion.

That potential income associated with “clicks” online, too, seems to puzzle many. How can my online activity yield financial gain, even if I don’t buy anything? This piece by TechTimes does a fantastic job explaining specifically how popular “clickbait” sites like BuzzFeed can mean real cash in someone’s pocket. It’s all about the advertising, and it’s a fruitful business in our modern world.

Having said that, it might be worthwhile to have kids explore the nature of many of the most notorious “fake news” sites on the web. Have students identify the many elements that make these sites sensational and interesting. Analyze the images, the language, and the headlines. Here are some of the more disreputable sites the world has been monitoring as of late (be cautious about appropriateness of content before utilizing in the classroom):

These are certainly only a handful of the “mock news” organizations that spread like wildfire through social media. The Daily Dot also provides an annotated list of a variety of “fake news” sites that particularly make their way across Facebook feeds.

One might leave this exploration with a sense of “knowing better”—that no one with any brain would fall for these sorts of scams. However, the reality is that many people do. From “thousands of fraudulent ballots for Clinton” being uncovered to the NBA cancelling its “2017 NBA All-Star Game in North Carolina,” millions of people—including some of our most trusted news organizations—fall prey to this sort of false information every year.

Model “Hoax Sites”

In order to model the reality that virtually anyone can build a web site, you might want to show students some of these hoax sites. Chance are good students will not fall for the deception, but they can help bring a light-heartedness to a very real-world issue.

Political Bias

This chart has been making the rounds recently in social media as a potential resource for recognizing political biases within popular news organizations. There’s something whimsical about the chart, and surely its credibility itself is in question. However, it might be a good jumping-off point for starting a discussion with students about the potential for bias within the news organizations we are told to trust. The Pew Research Center has collected some interesting data around how much the public trusts their different sources of information. They also have some data on what type of news media the public consumes and what it says about their political leaning (and perhaps vice versa). Student News Daily has an excellent resource that outlines the types of bias to look for in mainstream media, while Forbes points out some of the major shareholders of some of these companies, rich for potential research into where the money comes from that keeps news organizations in business. All of this opens up the potential for discussion and inquiry, encouraging students to begin to look at even the most trusted mainstream sources with a critical, thoughtful eye.

The Skills: How Can We Fight Back?

Know Your Search Operators

To start, students need to know how to seek out specific and relevant information. Knowledge of search operators can help with that. Fake news sites tend to be vague, which allows for sensational statements. If students are detailed about the information they’re looking for, they are more likely to get more thorough sources. Check out some of Google’s search operators here and here, or check out the handy infographic provided here to hang up in your classroom.

Know your gTLDs

“Generic Top Level Domains” are the top-level domain names of Internet addresses that identify them generically as associated with some domain class. Wha? You know the last three or so letters of a web site URL? .com? .net? That. These letters let us know a little bit about the type of source we’re looking at when we find a web site. There are a super lot of these, but some of them are more common than others. Find an extensive list here (or officially, here), or check out this “cheat sheet” of the most common gTLDs and what they generally mean when assessing for credibility:

  • .com (commercial): This is the most popular gTLD. Originally used for commercial purposes, this is now used for almost any web site imaginable. Anyone can have a .com. Proceed with caution and a critical eye.
  • .net (network): Originally meant for network sites, this gTLD, too, is often used for many non-network-related information. Anyone can have a .net. Proceed with caution and a critical eye.
  • .gov (government): These sites are restricted to government use only. This is not a public domain one can simply purchase. Often an excellent source of statistical data.
  • .org (organization): This TLD was intended for organizations and non-profits. However, it has quickly been embraced by the general public. Be aware of the bias of the particular organization. Proceed with caution and a critical eye.
  • .edu (education): This TLD is generally used by universities and other formal educational institutions. Many research sciences will publish through their associated university.

Cross Referencing and Fact Checking

It’s important to teach students that one source does not necessarily verify information. They should be cross-referencing everything. One way to do this is to use complex search operators (see above) to seek out the specific information found in one source in order to check if the data can be found elsewhere. The more trusted sites that use and support your found data, the more credible that data becomes. 

Another way we can try to verify information is to use fact-checking sites. Many of these sites claim to be “non-partisan” sites that attempt to supply the truth to everything from urban legends to data cited by celebrities and politicians. The caution here is that many of these sites have been accused of being biased in nature, and many continue to be greatly scrutinized. Snopes is a popular fact-checking site, but be wary about letting students roam about the site freely, as it covers a wide body of topics, including things one might identify as “school inappropriate”. FactCheck.org covers a lot of political statements, including the reporting of popular news organizations. WhoWhatWhen is also a great site for verifying historical information.

Who Says So?

It’s important for students to not only think about the credibility of the web site they are looking at, but also the ethos of the voices on that site. Trusting the integrity of a news source might be one thing, but trusting those being interviewed is quite another. As students are thinking about the sources relied upon by news organizations, they don’t want to simply take their word for it: check the ethos. To get students thinking, you might discuss the differences between some of the following types of information:

1. Statistics or facts from a study or a survey: Studies are done to discover new potential facts…if these facts support your claim, it might be logical to believe you.

2. A quotation from a professional in a relevant field: People who have spent their lives studying your topic…their thoughts and even opinions are more trusted than your own due to their wealth of experience with the issue.

3. Reference to an historical event from an article or other primary source: An article that reports on something that actually happened in time, can be verified, and that event supports your claim.

4. A quotation from a person directly impacted by the topic: People who are involved with the debate in some way or have personal experience can be helpful in supporting your claim.

5. Something just said in an article (likely by a reporter, and the reporter is not a professional in the relevant field you are researching): News reporters are surely supposed to report the facts, not take a side on an issue. But if a claim is being made without referencing credible sources, students will want to be cautious.

A Finder’s Guide to Facts

NPR has a fantastic resource to review with students when checking the credibility of your sources. Their “Finder’s Guide to Facts” provides an extensive set of questions and considerations one should always address when they come upon information on the Internet. In particular, these questions get to the root of both bias and clickbait. The sample below might lead you to thinking about web sites in ways that might not have occurred to you:

  • Does the story attack a generic enemy?
  • Are you asked to rely on one killer factoid?
  • Does the news source appear to employ editors?

EasyBib’s Website Credibility Checker

EasyBib provides a fantastic resource to help students to assess the credibility of the sites they are using. Typing the site they are questioning into the provided search bar, EasyBib will open the site with an added bar to the right, where students answer a series of questions that will guide them through the process of site evaluation. In short, it helps students to build the practice of what to look for, what to be wary of, and ultimately encourages them to make their own educated decision around whether they trust the site enough for use in their research. This site includes a wonderful guide to help students to physically locate the key information they need to be aware of in order to trust a published piece.

The Games: Playing with Source Credibility in the Classroom

Fact or Faux?: Supply students with a number of websites – legitimate mixed with complete hoax sites. Can they identify the imposters? Applying some of the tools listed in our “skills” section, have students try to identify which sites are not real. The better you can blur the lines between fact and faux, the harder the game becomes.

Trustometer: Give students a “site credibility” ranking system of 1 to 5 (or perhaps 1 to 10 for more advanced evaluators). Give students a series of web sites, each with particular strengths and weaknesses in their credibility. In a group, students must use reasoning and the skills listed above to rank each site and defend their ranking with what they’ve observed. This activity easily yields cross-team debates. The teacher might choose to award “points” to the teams that make the more persuasive argument.

The Tower of Power: Choose a debatable topic – something that will light a fire in your students. Then, find a number of web sites that take the differing stances on that topic (say, 5 anti and 5 pro). Have students rank the web sites, based on credibility: from the most credible to the least credible. Can students wade through their own feelings on a debate to identify which sources are more reliable (as opposed to those that support their personal opinions)? This models the real-world complication of personal bias.

The Art of Truthiness: Have students fact-check real politicians, celebrities and pundits. Show a video, give them a transcript, and put them into teams to try to verify statements made by our leaders and public figures with their own online research. Students can then follow up with a complete evaluation.

Liar, Liar: The goal of this activity is to have students attempt to “sneak” false or unverified information into their speaking or writing. This could take the form of a class debate or perhaps public speeches. Students may call out “liar, liar” when they think they hear nonsense. Students might earn points for calling out the lie. Students might lose points for being wrong about a lie. Students might get points for “getting away” with a lie. Adapt as you see fit for your class.

Written and compiled by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.