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Unpacking Fake News: An Educator's Guide to Navigating the Media with Students

reviewed by Aimée Dorr - August 15, 2019

coverTitle: Unpacking Fake News: An Educator's Guide to Navigating the Media with Students
Author(s): Wayne Journell (Ed.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807761141, Pages: 176, Year: 2019
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Unpacking Fake News: An Educator’s Guide to Navigating the Media with Students is timely, provocative, and eminently readable. For those who come to it with considerable background, as I do, it offers many different issues and activities to analyze, critique, or pursue. For comparative novices, it offers a potpourri of topics that can be pursued elsewhere in order to gain more depth of understanding in areas of interest.

In the Introduction, Editor Wayne Journell aptly characterizes each of the book’s eight chapters. The contributors then share a wide range of perspectives on the nature of fake news; how news is accessed, interpreted, and used; and how to help students better navigate news, particularly online. The titles of the eight chapters convey the variety of topics and perspectives found in this slim book:

1. Why Does Fake News Work? On the Psychosocial Dynamics of Learning, Belief, and Citizenship;

2. Real Recognize Real: Thoughts on Race, Fake News, and Naming Our Truths;

3. Teens, Social Media, and Fake News;

4. How Students Evaluate Digital News Sources;

5. Teaching in the Twilight Zone of Misinformation, Disinformation, Alternative Facts, and Fake News;

6. Judging Credibility in Un-Credible Times: Three Educational Approaches for the Digital Age;

7. Political Memes and the Limits of Media Literacy; and

8. Two Truths and Fake News: Lessons for Young Learners.

Contributors (including those responsible for the Foreword, Preface, Introduction, and Afterword) varied in terms of what they considered to be fake news. Several offered a similar definition: fake news is incorrect facts presented as though they were factual facts, tabloid un-truths, targeted disinformation, deliberate misinformation, and false stories that appear to be news. A few considered fake news to be a weaponized phrase or an accusation leveled at facts one doesn’t like. One author identified fake news as the failure to promulgate certain news or the delay of its dissemination. Some did not explicitly describe fake news at all, and some expanded their focus beyond news and online sources to include other content, venues, and delivery systems.

Many factors can be at play when anyone engages with news, real or fake. An objective, analytic approach focuses on ascertaining the credibility of the information itself. This involves gathering information about the creation, distribution, and purposes of a particular news item, how it compares to other sources, and who is likely to benefit from or be harmed by it. Several contributors focus here; others focus on psychosocial factors. In fact, much news, be it fake or factual, plays on or engages with desires, fears, wishes, and fantasies. Beliefs, personal investments, and cognitive bias at a minimum tend to color the interpretation of information, fake or factual. Reasoning is motivated not only by a desire to establish the credibility of content but also by a variety of important and often overlooked psychosocial processes. Authors of one chapter posit that whether news is deemed real or fake depends on whether the news comports with one’s understanding of “us” (one’s own moral community) and “them” (everyone else).

News and other content are encountered, interpreted, and/or used by people with varying beliefs, interests, knowledge, and capabilities. In this book, the people in question are primarily adolescents in classrooms. Although there are wide variations, the hallmarks of adolescence include developing cognitive capacity, responding to and with emotionality, exploring identity, striving for greater autonomy, and questioning authority. These developmental characteristics influence how adolescents engage with news and other information. There are also subgroup characteristics that influence how students interact with news; one chapter illustrates this by contrasting the colonized with the colonizers.

In chapters reporting their own research, contributors describe results that should give one pause. In one study assessing civic online reasoning, students from middle school through college had considerable difficulty assessing the credibility of online news from their usual sources, e.g., Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. In a study of students’ use of evidence in public policy deliberations, high schoolers made scant use of an evidence packet, adopted fake news in their arguments, and evidenced both confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. The vetted facts in the packet played little role in their arguments.

All contributors to this book are well-versed in K-12 education, and all but one are in education units in universities. In keeping with the intentions of the book, they offer suggestions for in-school educational activities. Those that address credibility include simultaneously developing background knowledge and credibility assessment skills, teaching the practices of fact checkers, learning about media systems, increasing relevant metacognitive processes, developing nuanced skills and strategies, and offering ongoing opportunities for practice. Activities that address psychosocial factors include teaching about motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, and developing strategies for minimizing their influence. For these activities, authors suggest picking topics that matter to adolescents, engaging in the moral critique of news media, and discussing the ethics of information. With the exception of the excellent mini-lessons for elementary and middle school students, these and many other worthy curriculum suggestions would need substantial further development before they are ready for use in classrooms. As evidenced by the chapter on memes, technology, its distribution systems, and its uses are ever-changing. Yet there is an urgent need to prepare students with the capacity and inclination to seek credible information and use it well. Curriculum needs to recognize these realities, address all the important processes and student characteristics, and stand the test of time.

In the preface, the editor confesses that he did not plan to publish this book. However, the events leading up to and following Donald Trump’s election made him very worried about the civic well-being of our nation. He also started to see, in disparate venues, exceptional articles confronting the problem of fake news head-on.Journell realized that he could bring important perspectives together in one place, and the result is this book. As a knowledgeable reader, I have had the opportunity to analyze, criticize, and admire what he and his collaborators have produced. Whether a novice or an expert, you too are likely to be stimulated by what this book offers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 15, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23053, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:57:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Aimée Dorr
    University of California, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    AIMÉE DORR is Professor Emerita at UCLA, former UC Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs (2012–2017), and former Dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (1999–2012).
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