Technology teacher Ethan Schoenherr started off a recent 6th Grade class by showing an irresistible piece of click-bait: a tweet about what appears to be a textbook example of government waste.
"NASA spent $165 million on a space pen that would write in zero gravity. The Russians used a pencil," read the tweet, which included the hashtag #TaxDayApril15th.
The implication was clear: the federal government (in this case NASA) was wasting millions of our taxpayer dollars on a boondoggle (in this case a "space pen") when a simple pencil would do.
"Look at the pen in the photo with this tweet," Ethan urged students. "Does it look a little fishy?"
"It just looks like an ordinary pen," observed one student.
"It does," said Ethan. "You can find this story all over social media. Now, open your Chromebooks. We are going to look for some reputable news sources about this."
One student's Google search landed him on a Politifact.com headline that read "No, NASA did not spend $165 million on a space pen." Another student found a Snopes.com article that also pegged the "space pen" story as false. A third student dug up a story reporting that NASA did try to develop a space pen, but spent just $4,000 on the project.
The internet is awash in rumors, questionable information and outright fake news—much of which looks indistinguishable from real news. It's enough to leave your average grown-up feeling a little unmoored. So imagine the challenge for adolescents.
As part of the 6th Grade technology curriculum, Ethan teaches a four-part unit on media bias and fake news. The classes introduce students to several tools for evaluating the credibility and bias of various news organizations, specifically a curriculum developed by Common Sense Education for helping children find credible information on the internet. The goal is to empower students as consumers of news by boosting their media literacy.
"I'm hoping I can give them a knowledge base of where you can go to research everything you read or see," said Ethan.
During a previous class in this unit, Ethan introduced students to a media bias chart developed by Ad Fontes Media. It plots news-gathering organizations on a grid where one axis measures how much original fact reporting the outlet does, and the other axis measures the outlet's political bias—from conservative to liberal.
"A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from my aunt that linked to an article in The Epoch Times," Ethan told students. "I had never heard of The Epoch Times, so I put it in the chart. It came up in the fake news section, saying that Epoch Times has a reputation for leaving out information and putting in false information. So I can use that information to help make my own judgment."
Then Ethan stresses a point, which he returns to repeatedly throughout the unit: "This chart is a tool but it's not the only tool. It's not the only thing you should use to assess the credibility of news sources."
With the media bias chart on the classroom SmartBoard, Ethan plotted several well-known (and lesser-known) news outlets on the grid: MSNBC (left of center, but generally factual); CNN (further left, with a mix of news and opinion), and the Associated Press (among the most reliable and un-biased of the bunch.)
After plotting even more news outlets, the graph began to take the unmistakable shape of an arch. "Do you notice a pattern here?" Ethan asked. "At the top of the graph, everything is more toward the center, meaning greater fact-based, original reporting. The lower we go—the more toward partisan extremes—the further away we get from facts."
Students were then tasked with doing their own fact-finding: Pick three news organizations and plot them on the media bias chart to see where they land.
"I looked up the Daily Signal and it was all the way to the bottom and all the way to right," announced one student, revealing that the site is right-leaning and considered not a credible source of news.
As the class was working, Ethan pointed out that the names of news outlets can themselves be misleading.
"Something called 'The Real News Network' might sound like CNN, like they are just reporting the facts," he said. The classed giggled, indicating they knew where he was going with this.
"Also, the 'Bipartisan Report' sounds neutral, right?" Ethan continued. "But I'm looking on the chart and it's considered hyper-partisan left. These names can be very deceiving in their own right."
Looking incredulous one student who was reading a more fringy website finally asked, "Does anyone read this stuff?"
Without missing a beat, Ethan replied, "Enough people do that it got the attention of the experts who put this chart together!"
One other notable thing about this unit is the way Ethan delivers the content: with the just-the-facts-ma'am delivery of Tom Brokaw. At times, the students snickered about Fox News or made a sympathetic case for why MSNBC should be considered more credible.
But there was no hint of an agenda or political bias in the teaching. Just an honest pursuit of credible information and the tools that will help students separate fact from fiction—like giving them a weed wacker to clear out the invasive species that have crept into the news media ecosystem.