October 21, 2020

The Lead is a weekly newsletter that provides resources and connections for student journalists in both college and high school. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every Wednesday morning.

By Abby Vervaeke, Simmons University senior

Election and coronavirus misinformation have been rampant on social media this year. Although members of Generation Z are digital natives, they are not immune to misinformation and disinformation.

Some pieces of misinformation you find may be specific to your campus, like rumors about what the administration plans to do for the spring 2021 semester. Others might be more general, about COVID-19 precautions or presidential candidates. Regardless, you can take steps in your student newsroom to combat the spread of misinformation in your community.

Here are some tips from MediaWise (a digital media literacy initiative of The Poynter Institute) and examples of what other student journalists have done.

Start getting in the habit of questioning the claims you see

If you’re not sure how to start a fact check, try asking yourself these three questions, developed by the Stanford History Education Group.

If you’re not sure how to start a fact-check, try asking yourself these three questions, developed by the Stanford History Education Group.

  1. Who’s behind the information? For example, information on how your school is testing for COVID-19 is likely accurate when it comes directly from your health center, but it could be questionable when it’s from a random person online.
  2. What’s the evidence? Always look to see if the author has cited their sources. If you can’t find a source to back up the claim, that’s a sign of misinformation.
  3. What do other sources say? If it’s a claim specific to your school, look at what other campus and local publications are saying. (To learn more about these questions and how to evaluate claims, check out the Civic Online Reasoning Curriculum, developed by SHEG.)

Monitor what’s spreading on social media among students

Student organization social media accounts, meme pages and Facebook groups are places where rumors, speculations and conspiracy-like posts are born.

At The Simmons Voice, we were able to spot a claim in the comments of a post on a student meme page that the university silenced a student during virtual commencement. From there, we investigated the incident and posted a story to explain what actually happened.

A similar incident occurred at Michigan State University when a tweet from a Barstool Spartans account misled students to think spring break was canceled. The State News, a student newspaper at MSU, quickly wrote a story to clarify the tweet and add context.

If you notice a pattern in the misinformation you see, try creating fact-checks that address the larger issue. (Check out this Twitter thread from MediaWise addressing misinformation from a USPS mailer.)

Meet students where they are: on social media

If you want to reach as many students as possible with your fact checks, a written piece is not the only medium to consider using.

A study out of Northeastern University in 2018 found that in a given week, 93% of students get their news from conversations with peers and 89% from social media. Instead of trying to direct students to your website, give them the information they need directly on the platforms where they encounter misinformation.

The MediaWise Voter Project Campus Correspondents, a group of college students who teach their peers how to detect election misinformation, create fact checks that are less than a minute long on TikTok. As a result, their fact checks reach a larger and younger group of people. (Check out these TikToks that fact-check a Facebook post about Kamala Harris and voting twice in the general election.)

Show your work

Debunking a piece of misinformation is only the first step. Showing your peers how you fact-checked a claim can give them the media literacy skills they need to spot misinformation going forward.

The MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network lays out all the steps they use in their daily fact-checks on Instagram.

In each fact-check, the teens walk through where they saw the claim and what tools they used to determine its legitimacy. Sometimes this is as simple as showing a keyword search or a reverse image search. Other times, there’s a bit more digging involved, especially if a claim has multiple parts. (Check out this TFCN fact-check about mail-in voting in Wisconsin.)

Point students to resources

If it’s clear that a rumor spread because students weren’t looking for information in the right place to begin with, try to point them in the right direction.

At MediaWise, we always encourage people to go straight to the original source. For example, for the election, we direct people to their supervisor or board of elections for voting information. This is especially relevant when checking graphics on Instagram about registration or voting deadlines.

If your newsroom or a specific person at your school is the best place for students to get up-to-date and accurate information on a specific subject, tell students directly. For example, if your school has a COVID-19 dashboard, direct students there to avoid confusion about the number of cases on campus.

Fact-checking has never been as important as it is now. Students are making critical decisions about their health, their vote and their education. Your student newsroom can play an important role in ensuring that those decisions are based on facts, not fiction.

Abby Vervaeke is an intern at MediaWise and the managing editor of The Simmons Voice, the student-run newspaper at Simmons University.

One tool we love

Poynter’s free “Hands-on Fact-checking” course is designed for college students as a self-directed course.  It’s approximately 90 minutes long and includes lessons on identifying reliable sources in fact-checking, debunking viral misinformation, and deciding whether a statement is really checkable.

— Abby Vervaeke

One story worth reading

The New York Times turned to student journalists to report from their schools in a recent piece on college campus quarantines. The Times has identified more than 178,000 coronavirus cases at colleges and universities since the pandemic began. The piece is a great example of partnering with students and letting them be the experts on their own communities, especially during lockdowns that limit outside reporters’ access.

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Mental health strategies for student newsrooms as the pandemic stretches on

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

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