Editor’s note: In Friday’s edition of The Sheridan Press, junior high school teachers explained how they help students figure out the validity of a source. Today, instructors at the high school and college level go into detail on the same subject.
SHERIDAN — Newspapers, magazines, online articles, TV, radio, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, advertisements. All of these different modes of communication are constantly stimulating people with words and images, making it difficult to separate the signal from the noise.
Sheridan High School librarian LaDonna Leibrich has been teaching freshman orientation on digital citizenship for several years. “Fake news” is not a new phenomenon, Leibrich said, but the phrase itself is. The main things she stresses are for students to use common sense, and not trust everything they read at first glance.
The high school follows a similar test as the University of Wyoming for evaluating different types of sources. It’s called the CRAP test at the college and CAARP at SHS. It stands for current, authority, accuracy, reliability and purpose. Leibrich said there are a few questions under each letter that students should consider when reading or watching.
Leibrich said most students enter high school with a solid understanding of source reliability, thanks to the teaching from elementary and middle school teachers. Still, each freshman takes a “digital citizenship assessment” that Leibrich created. She based it off of the Wyoming driver’s test, and emphasizes to students that, like driving, almost anyone can pass a theoretical test, but the real challenge is applying what they learn.
As they progress through high school, Leibrich said students are given a more in-depth presentation on source credibility for their research papers and AP classes. She said there has been little reaction from parents about what she teaches, because students are good at questioning each other if a debate about a source arises.
Charles Denny, an English instructor at Gillette College, said the uproar over fabricated stories is a false issue. Denny said he focuses on teaching his students the difference between fact and opinion, and how to evaluate the logical strength of news sources, as opposed to telling them to trust certain outlets and not trust other ones.
In his composition and critical reading courses, Denny said he stresses that students look into as many possible sources of information as they can, then make an informed decision about what to think. He said most students don’t get information from great sources in the first place, so there can be an initial adjustment period.
In the composition class, Denny said there is a lot of discussion about the change in news distribution in recent decades.
“When you have 24-hour news, you still only have a finite number of facts to present,” he said. “So what do you fill the rest of the 23-and-a-half hours with? You fill it with speculation, you fill it with editorial, you fill it with opinion.”
When students broaden their information horizon, and read 20 different sources saying one thing, while two or three say something else, they will realize what is more likely to be true.
Another topic Denny stresses is that news outlets have never been apolitical, so people have to read multiple accounts of events. He said it was much easier to teach his courses 20 years ago, but now there is much easier access to information, both for good and bad.
Denny said Facebook is a challenge, because it takes the work out of searching for news sources by aggregating information on someone’s feed. Denny said he tells students to look at everything on Facebook as entertainment as opposed to information, and to never to trust something they read or saw from any single source.
Sheridan College English instructor Michael Jensen said all sources fall somewhere on the “continuum of credibility,” and that students need the tools to recognize when something seems less than credible.
In his composition classes, Jensen said some red flags are when an author uses emotive or explosive language, insults those who disagree with him or her, and doesn’t reference opposing viewpoints.
Jensen said students mainly use peer-reviewed academic journals as sources in their essays. Even academic papers are not always reliable, but Jensen said they are the safest bet at trustworthy information.
“There are no absolutes,” he said. “You’re playing the odds. You want to get the best quality material, and at the end of the day, you have to have some trust in your sources and hope that you’re not getting something biased.”
An example Jensen gives to students is on the legalization of marijuana. He will present them with several different sources, which have conflicting data and information, and students have to wade through the sources and rank their credibility.
As writers, students are borrowing the credibility of their sources, so they have to think hard about what they are reading, Jensen said. It can be an exhausting process, but one that may be more important now than ever.
“You have to do your research, and then you have to do your research on your research,” Jensen said.