Shira, Deb and David Hoffer, of Hanover, spoke with Jaimie Seaton about the issue of media literacy and the current news landscape. This is an edited transcript of their conversation. (The youngest Hoffer family member was not interviewed.)
Shira Hoffer, 15, freshman at Hanover High School
Q: Where do you get your news?
A: I get my news from CNN and an Israeli website called Haaretz. I also get news from Facebook and Buzzfeed, but don’t trust them as much as CNN and Haaretz. My dad talks a lot about making sure you know the source of news, so I make sure it’s a reputable source before I believe it.
Q: What are you learning in school about fake news?
A: In our Civitas class we talk about current events and the news, and we had a talk about safe social media use. In my history class each day we have to answer a current events question to get into the classroom, so there’s been a lot of focus on learning about different news sites, and what’s reputable and what’s not.
Q: Do you think this is an important issue?
A: I do think it’s important. I think there are two separate issues: freedom of the press and reliability of the press. Once freedom of the press and of speech is compromised, civil liberties start to be compromised and questioned as well. Civil liberties and the First Amendment are really important to me, and if that begins to be compromised then our freedoms as Americans begin to be compromised as well.
Regarding reliability, I tend to be very trusting of what I’m told by authority figures, whether it’s a news source or someone older than me, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. (News) agencies are supposed to be trustworthy and provide news as it is for the good of the people, and if they are not reliable and the public finds out, then the public questions what they can truly rely on, which leads to a lack of trust in general. When people are tiptoeing on eggshells and not feeling trustful, that can lead to a breakdown in society.
Q: Do you think bias is a problem in news media?
A: Obama said in his farewell address that on social media we surround ourselves with people like us, and views we agree with. That made me question who I follow on social media, and I think it would be an interesting experiment going forward to read Fox News and other news sources where I don’t necessarily agree with their bias. I do certainly notice bias: Sometimes the bias is very blatant and sometimes it’s hard to see nuances.
Deb Hoffer, 47, pediatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center
Q: Do you think the proliferation of fake news is a problem?
A: I don’t know if it’s as much of a problem with teens as it is with adults. I think every family deals with it differently, and if families don’t talk about it, it can be a problem. As kids get older they are more able to discern reliable sources from unreliable sources. If they are taught well and it’s discussed at home, they become more media literate.
Q: How do you handle the issue at home?
A: We’ve certainly in this past year been talking a lot about news and politics, and the topic of reliable sources comes up a lot. It’s something I’m used to because I’m a physician, and the topic of reliable sources of medical information is not new at all, so it’s top of mind. With both our kids we’ll ask, “Where did you hear that? Who was reporting it? Did it have a specific perspective or was it a balanced report?”
Q: How do you view the role of educators in this discussion?
A: It’s hard to say. It would be nice if it was woven into the curriculum. To the extent that kids are being taught to use the internet in general, this should be part of that, and this is very much an emerging topic. It depends on the age and the subject. If kids are taking a tech-oriented class, it should be part of the curriculum; it should be woven into history courses. Hanover High School has a journalism course, and I hope it is woven in there. There are many opportunities.
David Hoffer, 48, managing director at The Lyme Timber Co.
Q: How important an issue is media literacy?
A: I think it’s critically important. The ability of our political system to serve its purpose and serve the citizens depends on citizens being able to evaluate facts in determining how they want the country to be run. If people aren’t able to get facts or distinguish between facts and “alternative facts” than the whole system is destabilized, because people don’t know what is happening or what they are voting for.
Q: What do you teach your children about what they are watching or reading in the news?
A: It feels like a relatively recent issue, and while news sources have always had a certain level of bias, the fabrication of so-called news feels like it has dramatically increased the last year or so, and I think we are still working on an approach, both for our children and ourselves. We are pretty open with our children and tend to share with them our understanding of the facts as we perceive them to be, and when we are struggling to determine what is fact and what is fiction we try to make them aware of our uncertainty so that they can also learn that you can’t necessarily believe everything that you read.