Teaching Information Literacy Skills Through Fake News, Bias, and Self-Reflection

During the course of the Fall 2017 semester, I was asked by a few faculty members to teach a class on how to spot fake news. After teaching a few straight forward instructional sessions, I connected with a faculty member who wanted a slightly different approach. I took this as an opportunity to use the concept of fake news as an entry point (instead of being the focal point) to introduce students to some information literacy skills. (I apologize in advance for the length of this post.)

I decided to begin the class with an icebreaker game called “Telephone”. Some of you may be familiar with this game, or know it under a different name. In brief, one person says a word or phrase that is then whispered from person to person around the room until it ends with the last person saying what they heard. The word or phrase is usually unrecognizable to the original at this point in time. True to form, the phrase I had used was completely different than the phrase that was finally uttered. This game illustrated to students how easily and quickly information gets spread and corrupted. I explained that when we only read headlines, or when we use a quoted quote from an article, we are only hearing what is essentially “whispered” to us. To better understand information, it is always best to go back to the original source.

Besides the “Telephone” game being a perfect illustration of the spread of misinformation, it also served as a way to loosen students up and get them chatting more freely. I then had students silently reflect on their own biases by completing a worksheet where they had to quickly write down a word or phrase in ten identity statements. I started out simple with statements like “Librarians are _______________”, and moved into more complex statements such as “I identify as_______________”. The purpose of having students complete this self-reflective identity piece is to have them begin to examine their own biases. I shared some of my answers with students and how it makes me biased in one way or another. Since how we identify is how we perceive the world around us, it is important to understand our own biases and how that might interfere. Understanding our own biases also helps us to be able to more readily spot other peoples’ biases as well. This understanding is not only helpful in reading news articles, but in reading scholarly or historical research as well, which is important to point out to students. In the interest of privacy, I did not have any students share the answers to their identifying statements. The purpose of this activity was self-reflection.

After the students reflected on their identity statements, I moved into defining what is a fact, an opinion, and bias. We discussed how, especially in newspaper articles, one sentence can contain all three, and that makes it difficult to parse out what exactly is fact and what is opinion. To illustrate this point, and to serve as a warm-up to a more complex activity, I had students read five sentences and determine whether they were a fact or an opinion. Out of the five sentences, one was a trick and contained both facts and opinions.

The day before the class, I selected several different newspaper articles. They all focused on the same story, but were from varying perspectives. I included such organizations as FOX News, CNN, Bloomberg, The Hill, and The National Review. Since we were limited on time, I chose articles that were short and could easily be read in only a few minutes. The students broke up into small groups and each group was given a different article. They were told to read the article and then work together to indicate which parts were facts, opinions, and biases.

As a whole class, I had students share the facts, opinions, and biases they pulled from the articles. I wrote them on the board so we could see how each article tended to report on the same fact or two, but how that fact was interpreted varied widely. We discussed how this not only happens in newspaper articles, but other types of writing as well. There was also a brief discussion on how our biases bias us against different interpretations. I shared how my self-identification as a liberal made me biased towards the conservative interpretations of the facts. I explained that knowing this piece of information about myself allowed me to move past my initial negative reaction to particular articles, and re-read them with a more open mind.

After students identified the facts, opinions, and biases, I explained that the other important piece to this evaluation is learning about the source of the information. Since we were limited on time, I provided each group with background information (taken from Wikipedia and the organization’s website) about the organization their newspaper article came from. I used this moment to discuss with students the importance of using quality sources within their own papers. Using the CRAAP test as an evaluation tool, the students worked in the same groups and used the information provided to determine whether or not the information in their article was of good quality or poor quality. In a whole class discussion, we highlighted how the background information of the organization tended to align with the biases we saw in the writing of the newspaper articles.

The class ended with a brief discussion on how the students could apply what they learned in class to their own academic lives and how they could get further help from the library.

Overall, the class went well and the students enjoyed the hands on activities. Informal assessments throughout the instructional session allowed me to monitor how the students seemed to be grasping the concepts. Upon reflection after the class, I was satisfied with the initial results but would slightly alter the lesson plan for future sessions. The main component that I would change would be to allow more time for discussion after each activity; I believe the students would benefit even more from elongating the time to speak in certain sections. While I was limited to only one classroom computer and a one-shot class, it would be beneficial to make this a two-part library instruction class and have computers available to each student. Having a computer would allow students to look up the background information of the articles on their own, which is a valuable skill to learn.

All students received a handout that we used to work through the different sections of class. In addition, I provided them with a link to a guide I created that supplemented what was taught during class.  In response to the faculty’s interest on this topic, I also created a guide (Teaching in the Age of Alternative Facts) with information on the topic of fake news. It contains some great lesson plans from other libraries.