From the Editor: With ‘fake news,’ Salem High journalists teach a lesson about critical thinking

A detail of the front page story. [Courtesy]

PUNGO — I read with interest when Eric Hodies of The Virginian-Pilot reported that student journalists at Salem High School made up a story and published it this month to teach a lesson about what some call “fake news.” 

The SunDevil Times reported on its front page that the school would get an indoor Olympic pool, which is not true. The decision to publish such a story followed discussions between students, a faculty advisor and school leadership. The story was crafted to be just believable enough to its readers. 

The second page revealed the hoax, and it included a discussion about spotting untrustworthy stories by doing things writing teachers love to talk about – I was one – such as considering claims, examining sourcing, noting the standing of the author or publisher.

“The fake news story was purposely written to point out the need to question what is read and to verify sources,” Hodies wrote in The Pilot. “The writers hope that students will be more discerning of their news sources.”

Fake news is an inexact buzzword used to describe information that isn’t credible. However, powerful people who have reason to attack journalism have adopted the term to marginalize legitimate reporting.

“Fake news is out there, and it’s something we need to be aware of,” said Kathleen Trace, who teaches journalism at Salem and serves as English department chairperson. “We need to be considering sources and checking the validity of the publication. … With the second page story attached to it, it explains the point. The kids were talking about it.”

Trace said any nerves they may have had about running the story went away when it led to discussion about responsible consumption of information and critical thinking. “We were really pleased with the result because it got the conversation started,” she said.

A story by student journalist Ellian Chalfant, managing editor of the publication, on page two discussed what Trace called “red flags” in the fake report. These include the lack of sources, referring to a vague WordPress site and no direct quotes from a named source. “When a story seems too good to be true, it very well could be,” Chalfant wrote.

Students seemed to learn a lesson about the allure of fake news to consumers. In this case, consumers were school community members.

Initially, I was concerned that engaging in a falsehood might not be the right way to demonstrate such a lesson, but I came away from my conversation with Trace feeling that this was an effective, controlled way to generate a conversation within a school setting.

That the story is really a fabrication, a sin in both journalism and academic writing, is a point students and teachers could discuss in the coming year. Indeed, Trace said some teachers used the story in class to discuss sources and credible information.

Fake news, lacking specificity, is a tougher term to get one’s head around than is fabrication, a word students should understand.

Fabrication is extremely serious, an equal sin to plagiarism. Fabrication is the purposeful invention of stories in whole or in part, such as inventing a source, a small piece of information or a scene that never happened.

Salem’s student journalists engaged in it to make a serious point. We need to consume information, especially in the digital age, while employing critical thinking skills and questioning when sources of information refuse to engage in specifics and truths. 

For those SunDevils heading off to college, I recommend taking your English composition studies seriously, whether or not writing is in your plans. You’ll find tools to help prevent the sorts of generalizations that can weaken your own work or be used by people who mean to mislead you. The act of writing and reading with purpose, Salem’s student journalists remind us, is such a tool.

As always, thanks for reading. Critically.

A story on the second page revealed the front page story as a hoax and led to discussion about fabricated stories. [Courtesy.]

© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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