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Get the Facts: Students Sort Truth, Fiction

  • Alan Miller



Valley News Correspondent
Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Hanover — Separating fact from fiction in a digital era of endless news and chatter can be daunting, even for the most savvy techies.

The challenge was issued on Monday to some 30 Hanover high students, mostly seniors, in Margaret Caldwell’s social studies course on the media in democracy.

The challenger: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alan Miller, founder and chief executive officer of the News Literacy Project, a national nonpartisan education nonprofit that works with educators and journalists to help middle and high school students determine the legitimate from the phony, propaganda, satire, half-truths and counterfeit or so-called fake news.

Miller, who lives in the Washington area, also spoke with students at Lebanon High School before giving a public lecture at Dartmouth College, sponsored by the school’s Neukom Institute for Computational Science.

He got things started at Hanover High by posing several questions: What does fake news mean to you? Examples? How does it happen? How many of you use Twitter? (Only three hands went up). What’s the danger?

Lyla Stettenheim, a senior from Norwich, responded to the danger question, citing December 2016’s so-called “Pizzagate” incident, in which a North Carolina man fired an assault rifle inside a popular Washington pizza restaurant.

Inspired by unfounded but widespread online reports, he wrongly believed he was saving children trapped in a sex ring led by Hillary Clinton. The 28-year-old man was sentenced to four years in prison.

Alexander (“X” to friends and teachers) Hankel, also of Norwich, said a lot of so-called news is driven by people with a specific agenda, “... like oil tycoons pressuring media companies.”

Miller said he believes “fake news” is an oxymoron.

“If it’s genuine news, how can it be fake?” he explained.

He showed the class a slide presentation featuring, among other things, the curious impact of a fake photo of a shark swimming on a Houston freeway in the aftermath of August’s Hurricane Harvey.

A man in Dublin, Ireland, tweeted it to friends as a joke but it went viral, with scores of people, particularly those dealing with the storm’s damage, believing the image was real.

Miller offered seven tips on how to avoid being fooled by phony tweets and news feeds: “Check your emotions: What is your first reaction? Determine purpose of what you’re reading, watching or hearing; be aware of your biases; consider the message; search for more information; go deeper on the source; go deeper on the content itself.”

Miller got the idea for the news project in 2006 when he spoke to his daughter’s sixth-grade class about what he did as a journalist and why it mattered.

Two years later, he started the project from his basement after more than 20 years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he and a colleague won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for an investigative series about a military aircraft nicknamed “The Widow Maker” that was linked to the deaths of 45 pilots.

The news project, which involves educators as well as journalists, has programs in schools in New York City, Washington, Chicago and Houston, and has plans for the West Coast.

Two years ago the project launched a virtual classroom with an e-learning platform called Checkology, www.checkology.org. Miller said that as of this month, more than 11,500 educators who teach more than 1.75 million students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia are using the platform.

In addition, 86 countries also have registered to use it.

Content covers a wide variety of topics, including what is news and how is it created, the ethics of branded content on social media, credible blogs and how to identify viral rumors.

The project is financed mainly by donations from foundations and news entities such as Bloomberg. The three largest donors are from Silicon Valley and the tech world, including Facebook, Miller said.

Almost 100 students, faculty and community members attended the evening talk in Dartmouth’s Filene Auditorium.

Miller quoted an aphorism generally attributed to Mark Twain but that, according to Miller, probably came from Jonathan Swift: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

Tom Blinkhorn can be reached at tblinkhorn@gmail.com.