Students can't spot fake news, study finds

Educators, parents, and websites fight to raise news literacy

According to a recent Stanford University study, young people struggle to identify fake news.

The study, released on Tuesday, surveyed 7,804 students from middle school through college. Students were given series of headlines and stories on various platforms—such as social media, advertisements, and independent sites—and asked to choose which stories were most credible.

The results overwhelmingly showed students unable to detect misinformation. Out of the middle schoolers surveyed, for instance, 82% were unable to distinguish sponsored content from real news stories.

More than 60% of these same students said they did not recognize bias in a post written by a bank executive that claimed young adults need more help financial-planning. They saw no reason to mistrust the post. Many students who participated in the study believed that stories with more detail or with large photos were automatically more credible, even if the story was labeled "sponsored content."

College students in the study were not much better at discerning fake news than their middle school counterparts; when given a story from a source known as a conservative advocacy group named a hate group, the "great majority" of students could not determine bias, according to researchers.

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Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal and Marissa Lang of the San Francisco Chronicle identify a few reasons why today's students may struggle with news literacy, such as:

  • Schools have cut back on library staff;
  • News literacy has not been a staple part of school curricula; and
  • Students largely consume news via social media, where fake and real news are not separated.

In the wake of this year's election and a growing awareness of fake news, however, many educators, parents, and social media platforms are working to combat teens' consumption of false news stories.

Educators are:

  • Bringing journalists into classrooms to speak with students through the News Literacy Project;
  • Encouraging students to investigate each story's author;
  • Informing teens that top rankings on Google don't indicate credibility; and
  • Teaching students to look for multiple sources cited on each story.

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Parents are:

  • Encouraging children to read a variety of sources on topics of interest;
  • Discussing news stories from different perspectives over dinner;
  • Comparing coverage on several different TV programs;
  • Blocking sites that are inappropriate or untrustworthy; and
  • Asking children where they get their information.

Social media sites are:

  • Prohibiting fake news sites to use online advertising services;
  • Separating sponsored content from legitimate news stories;
  • Adding warning labels to sites confirmed as false; and
  • No longer labeling these sites as "news".

(Lang, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/21; Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 11/ 21).

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