Teaching our Kids to be Discerning Media Consumers

This past week, I received a distressed email from a former colleague containing a picture of the Abraham Lincoln statue – badly damaged and spray painted – in the Lincoln Memorial in DC. Current events reported in the United States were sufficient to convince my educated compatriot that this photo was real.

So, I started doing some research. What could I find on the web? I found pictures of law enforcement and military personnel protecting the memorial. I saw a little graffiti at the bottom of the steps to the memorial. I did not find any other evidence confirming that the picture my friend sent correlated with reality. I wrote back and told him I was 99.999% sure it was a fake.

The Internet blasts new information at us 24/7 these days. Even adults are having trouble sifting the factual wheat from the mythological chaff. How do we help our kids?

Youngsters already read information from a wide variety of sources. We can capitalize on this by talking with them about the sources’ reliability. Along the way, we can teach them what words like “provenanced” and “refereed” mean when it comes to sources. We can remind kids that traditional news agencies like AP and Reuter’s are considered fairly unbiased, whereas the Russian government-affiliated TASS is decidedly biased towards non-democratic views. Youngsters need to understand that even traditional newspapers and news shows present the news in a way that substantiates specific political agendas. We should teach them that some, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, lean liberal, while others, like the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, lean conservative. There are research sources – like the Congressional Research Service and Pew Research – that present pretty balanced views of the facts. Other sources – like dissertations, academic books, and think tank reports – often present interesting information, but may be colored with author or institutional biases. Known disinformation sources, like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, are purposely misleading. Reading them can teach us about the strategies used by the enemies of democracy, but they should never be considered reliable. There are many other sources out there, like Disinformation Review and the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab, that try to help the discerning reader identify fake news.

Stories of mis-reporting and deception first appeared 3000 years ago, in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s nothing new.

And what about the photographic record? Portrait photographers have been altering photographs nearly since the medium was invented in 1839, masking flaws and enhancing desirable features in their subjects. In the 20th century, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin actually had individuals erased from the historical photo record after he had them purged. The modern tools of photo alteration, along with the ubiquity of the Internet, today make it possible to disseminate undetectably doctored photographs anywhere.

So how can kids (and adults) learn to identify things that might look like reliable sources but are not, the so-called deep fakes? Let’s go back to the Lincoln statue photograph. Assuming I was looking at it online now, I might ask: What’s the source of this? Can I authenticate the person that took the picture? Does it have a date/time stamp on it? Does it look like it has been altered? Where was it posted? Why did the originator post it? And why now? Can I verify its accuracy by seeing it reproduced on known reliable sources, like AP or a leading newspaper? Does it look accurate? Does it make sense? Given everything else I know, is it believable?

We – adults and children – live in a free country where we value individual rights and opinions. It is up to each one of us to use our human powers of reason when we assess the veracity or mendacity of internet information. We need to consult a variety of sources, looking at each story from multiple vantage points before forming our opinions. Each person should treat every internet source as suspect until she herself has assessed its reliability.