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When we assign research projects in first-year writing courses, most of us want students to think critically about their topics and evaluate sources of information for quality. That generally means: “Go to the library. Read good books, scholarly journals, or articles in respected magazines and newspapers. Don’t rely on Google searches, much less Wikipedia, for your information.”
To achieve these learning outcomes, some creative instructors in the writing program at Florida International University are trying a novel approach: exposing students to unreliable sources, in particular, “fake news,” to help them better understand reliability and quality.
Dissecting fake news teaches students the ABC’s of evaluating sources in a real-life context that is relevant and revealing.
Below are some sample discussion topics for launching a “fake news” unit in a FYC course, along with a few low-stakes writing assignments:
1. Discuss to what extent fake news is a problem, and if it is, why. Find examples of fake news stories and/or fake news sites. Define concepts and criteria for evaluating fake news: what constitutes fact, evidence, truth, bias, objectivity, and satire? What are “weasel words and phrases”?
Examine the websites below and determine if they are disseminating fake news or not (list all of your criteria):
2. Examine and evaluate a news article. For example:
3. On a specific webpage, distinguish between news, opinion, advertisements (aka “sponsored content”), and “click bait.” The study below, “Evaluating Information,” conducted by the Stanford History Education Group, provides a useful example for this exercise, and also interesting insights:
4. Compose a fake news story targeting a specific audience for a specific purpose using plausible rhetorical appeals. (This can be a collaborative or individual assignment.)
5. Write a blog post that presents useful information about fake news, along with criteria for helping readers identify it. (This can be a collaborative or individual assignment.)
Since a lot of fake news is created for political manipulation, an instructor teaching this unit needs to keep students focused on the learning objectives and steer them away from political debates. If the class activities and assignments focus on the core issue of reliable information—separating fact from fiction, opinion, and distortion—the students will have a valuable learning experience.
Florida International University