The in-school push to fight misinformation from the outside world

From elementary schools to college classrooms, educators try to train students to be better consumers of information

When Jevin West read the news rife with number-heavy coverage of both Covid-19 and the election last fall, he kept finding new examples to bring to his class on data literacy and misinformation at the University of Washington.

West, an associate professor, and Professor Carl Bergstrom teach “Calling BS: Data Reasoning in a Digital World” (although the actual course listing uses the more colorful language). Their course covers everything from interpreting data visualizations to understanding publication bias in academic literature to identifying fake news. They’ve never had a shortage of material to work with.

“Almost every day there were things we could put in,” West, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said of the fall. “You have infinite material to pull from in real time.”

Launched in 2017, Calling BS became an instant hit at the University of Washington; it fills its 150-student capacity quickly each year. The curriculum – including YouTube videos of the lectures – is also available for free to any teacher who wants to use it. To date, faculty at more than 100 colleges, including foreign schools, community colleges and Ivy League universities, have reached out about adopting the course in what West describes as a “BS movement.”

“It’s difficult to learn and to trust information if we’re not aware of some of these ways information is manipulated,” West said.

“Today’s information environment is tremendously exciting and there’s all kinds of access, but there are really some enormous challenges and pitfalls and hazards out there.”

Peter Adams, senior vice president of education, News Literacy Project

As conspiracy theories spread across social media and misleading news stories are shared in internet echo chambers, educators across the country – and the world – are trying to battle misinformation by teaching students to be better consumers of news, media and data. Some universities, like UW, offer individual courses with this focus. Others have developed media literacy minors or even graduate certificates focused on the topic. At the K-12 level, states have begun incorporating media literacy into their standards and programs have begun cropping up aimed at training students to be better consumers of news.

Whether focused on media literacy or data literacy, research suggests a need for this type of education in general. A 2016 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that significant numbers of middle schoolers, high schoolers and college students could not adequately judge the credibility of online information.

“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak,” the study’s authors wrote.

College students were easily duped by biased websites with “high production values,” including links to news organizations and “polished ‘About’ pages.” More than 80 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between sponsored content and actual news stories.

The middle school exercise was almost not included in the study because researchers thought it was too easy, said Sam Wineburg, Stanford professor and lead author of the report. “We were stunned,” he said of the overall results.

A follow up report in 2019 found similarly dismal results. Nearly all high schools students surveyed had “difficulty discerning fact from fiction online” and 96 percent of students failed to question the credibility of an unreliable website.

What’s needed, according to experts, is a focus on media literacy education in classrooms—starting as early as third or fourth grade.

“We have an obligation as educators to do this,” Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at the News Literacy Project, said. “Today’s information environment is tremendously exciting and there’s all kinds of access, but there are really some enormous challenges and pitfalls and hazards out there.”

More than one third of middle school students report rarely or never having learned how to judge the reliability of information sources, which is “really the fundamental of what media literacy is,” said Helen Lee Bouygues, president of the Reboot Foundation, who is an expert on misinformation and critical thinking.

In a 2016 Stanford University study, more than 80 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between sponsored content and actual news stories.

There’s limited research on how best to teach students to interpret information they come across online, however, said Wineburg. He’s critical of programs that he says encourage student to “play 20 questions” by carefully examining all facets of a website. “We’re teaching web credibility as if it’s 2002,” he said. “It’s exactly the opposite of what professional fact-checkers do.”

Fact-checkers, Wineburg’s research has found, don’t dig deep into a website to determine its credibility, but search components of it in new browser tabs, to gain an outside perspective. Teaching students these strategies has yielded positive results in recent studies.

Some believe that partnering with journalists to address media literacy could also help. A recent Pew Research Center study found that a majority of Americans believe news media have the “most responsibility” in reducing fake news and misinformation.

Two of the News Literacy Project’s most popular programs do just that. Checkology, a free e-learning platform, is designed for students in grades 6-12 and provides interactive lessons from journalists and media experts on how to apply critical thinking skills and interpret and consume information. The NewsLitCamp, which is designed for educators, also relies on journalists. For one day, a school partners with a local newsroom to bring teachers, school librarians and media specialists together with journalists to learn about issues such as journalism standards and practices, news judgment and bias and the role of social media.

Despite such programs, experts remain concerned that teaching about media literacy and identifying misinformation isn’t yet a priority in the classroom.

“In some districts, English language arts teachers have almost no flexibility to work in something like this and in others they do,” Adams said, adding that social studies teachers have a bit more opportunity and flexibility to integrate this literacy into the classroom.

Media or news literacy education also shouldn’t just be a drop-in unit or a one-off lesson, warned Adams. Educators need to integrate it into instruction throughout the school year, he said.

Calling BS, the University of Washington course, tries to address the difficulties of incorporating such lessons into the classroom. West and Bergstrom have tried to make the curriculum – and individual pieces of it – easy for overworked high school teachers to integrate into the courses they’re already teaching.

The class focuses primarily on how data is created, manipulated and shared, something that West says could be taught in just about any classroom. At the University of Washington, students from more than 40 majors have enrolled in the class. Elsewhere, the course has been incorporated into classes in multiple fields including engineering, statistics, English, economics and business.

“It touches everything. It touches every subject,” West said.

As new technologies and social media platforms emerge, Adams said it’s “vitally important” to formally integrate this literacy training into the curriculum.

“Students have a right to it,” he said. “Information is clearly the basis for their civic agency and civic empowerment. If someone can misinform you, they can hijack the power of your civic voice.”