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Remember when the only fake news you encountered during the week was in the check-out line at the grocery store? You’d catch a glimpse of a headline—“Cab Driver Describes Night of Terror During Alien Abduction”—and laughingly wonder who comes up with such blatantly false stories. Times have changed. Instead of a handful of publishers passing off flights of fancy as fact, we are inundated with a steady stream of fake news on our social media feeds. Even journalists have been taken in by fake news stories: a major news network issued an on-air apology after reporting on a “secret transcript” that turned out to be a phony article that went viral. If seasoned professionals—with their years of experience conducting interviews, vetting sources and fact-checking data—have trouble distinguishing real news from fake, what about less savvy news consumers?
Last November, the Stanford History Education Group released findings from a survey of more than 7,800 students from middle school through college. The results were disconcerting. Many college students, for example, associated credibility with well-designed websites that featured links to traditional news organizations or well-written “About” pages. Students also struggled to spot bias, often mistaking sponsored posts and authentic news articles. Professor Sam Wineburg, lead author of the report, noted, “Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there.” The results tell a different story; digitally-savvy does not equate to discerning when it comes to identifying fake news.
It’s a problem that librarians and educators must tackle. In the Huffington Post article, “How I Teach My Students To Be On Guard Against Fake News,” high school teacher Lynn Kelly shares insights from teaching a Theory of Knowledge course for college-bound juniors and seniors. One project involves looking at a real-life situation and analyzing how students’ personal beliefs affect their interpretation of information. Kelly notes, “The critical thinking skills at the heart of the assessment are crucial for modern media literacy and democracy. We fall victim to fake news when we don’t understand our vulnerabilities that result from our biases and assumptions.” She also emphasizes the importance of contextual knowledge, commenting on how some students struggle to understand the Black Lives Matter movement because they have little real knowledge of the Civil Rights movement. Ultimately, she concludes, “Practicing critical thinking while developing content knowledge gives students a fighting chance at deciphering truth from fiction in today’s news.”
Even journalists, as noted above, can get caught up in delivering a “scoop”—so it’s hardly surprising that students confuse fact and fiction when it comes to media coverage. Today’s students grew up googling—and they love its ease of use. However, open web searches are more vulnerable to fake news because of algorithms that push stories to the top of results based on popularity or revenue generation. Until now, there hasn’t been an alternative that offers the features digital natives want with the authoritative, trusted content that academic research demands.
Earlier this month at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Atlanta, LexisNexis launched Nexis Uni™, an academic research tool designed with and for digital natives. Many of those gathered in Atlanta were impressed with the solution’s intuitive, flexible interface. After conducting 85 demos in just three days, we were gratified by the shared sense of excitement for Nexis Uni’s personalization, discovery and collaboration features that are complemented by our unmatched content collection of news, business and legal sources. As one ALA visitor said, “Nexis Uni will make my job easier.” And, we believe, it will make students’ efforts to identify fake news easier, too.