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Librarians take up arms against fake news

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By Jerry Large, The Seattle Times (Tribune News Service)
Friday, February 17, 2017

SEATTLE—Janelle Hagen is a school librarian whose job goes far beyond checking out books. She and many other librarians are equipping students to fight through lies, distortion and trickery to find their way to truth.

Helping students become smarter evaluators of the information that floods into their lives has become increasingly necessary in an era in which fake news is a constant.

Two University of Washington professors recently announced a new class that will focus on the ways data are misused to mislead the public. Younger students might need guidance even more.

Hagen, the middle-school librarian at Lakeside School in Seattle, said the students she serves are online every day, and they need to be able to figure out what's trustworthy and what isn't.

Besides running the library, Hagen said, she teaches a class called “digital life.” She meets with fifth-graders twice a week and with eighth-graders once a week. The classes are a mix of technology and information-literacy skills, but since the presidential election, she's increased the focus on the latter.

“It was because of all of the buzz (about fake news). You can look at the Google analytics, and the search for 'fake news' was unprecedented.” she said. “It's our job as teachers to address what's going on in the world.”

One Monday morning, her eighth-graders took a group quiz in which they were asked to identify different kinds of information—advertising, publicity, propaganda, news, opinion pieces. They worked on their laptops choosing from multiple options, and their choices showed up on a big screen at the front of the classroom. There was discussion after each question, especially when not everyone got the answer right.

Hagen introduced the new focus to students by showing them the results of a Stanford History Education Group study in which students from college, high school and middle school were tested on their understanding of various types of information.

Most middle-school students were able to distinguish advertisements from news stories, but more than 80 percent confused native advertisements with news stories. Native advertisements are designed to look like news stories, but they carry a label that sets them apart, usually “sponsored content.” That wasn't enough.

There is a great need for more education in the critical-thinking skills that are part of information literacy.

Remember when many people thought librarians were going to become obsolete because the world of information was migrating to the web? But then we became enthralled by the possibilities of big data, and library schools became information schools, turning out people who could help navigate vast troves of online data. That's where the discipline was when Hagen graduated from the University of Washington Information School in 2011.

Librarians and libraries are still with us, and those new data skills are increasingly valuable, but an older skill is now rising in importance. Hagen said librarians have always helped people sort fact from fiction, reliable sources from deceptive ones. Usually that happened as students worked on research papers, but now those lessons need to cover daily life.

“It's a difficult time to work in education because we are seeing what's happening in the world and how opinions are really first and foremost rather than facts,” Hagen said.

Lakeside's high school librarians put up a display in the entrance to their building that offers several tips for spotting fake news. One says: “What's the evidence?” Underneath a flap there's more detail: “As you read an article, make sure to see if they have any evidence to back up their claims. Furthermore, research the evidence to see if it is real, made up, or used in a way not intended by its creators.”

Are claims in an article backed up by verifiable facts? Check the authors' backgrounds to see if they have credibility on the topic they are writing about.

Hagen likes The News Literacy Project, a collaboration between journalists and educators to improve students' information literacy through lessons in the classroom and its online program Checkology.

Hagen's eighth-graders use AllSides, a website that rates the bias of news stories and other articles, labeling them according to where they fit on a political spectrum from left to center to right. And it posts multiple versions of major stories and their ratings. Readers can test their own biases on the site.

As the site says, “if you have a pulse, you have a bias.” And Hagen tells her students that even the most honest media have biases, but they also try hard to be fair, and articles must pass muster with layers of editors, so a reader or viewer is more likely to get a more reliable version of a given story.

Awareness is the key, she said. And it is. Read, listen and watch with an active, questioning mind.



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