We have a world of information at our fingertips. Anyone with an internet connection can be a reporter and can influence millions of people they'll never meet. It can be huge a challenge to figure out what’s true, what’s false, and what it all means. We’ve seen well-meaning people spread bad (even harmful) information, and we admit that we’ve probably been guilty of it ourselves.
There’s a great video that’s been circulating for a while, about the dangers of accepting claims at face value:
We find these critical-thinking techniques are valuable for adults, too, and we like to come back to them when we’re deciding whether to believe something we see or read.
The first step is to identify what the author is trying to do. Are they giving information, expressing an opinion, making satirical commentary, or advertising a product or service? These can all look similar to the unwary. Newspapers have begun publishing “advertorials” - advertisements made to look like news articles about the latest makeup trends or the science of athletic sneakers. Further, we only need to look at how many people have been fooled by satirical website The Onion to see how tricky it can be to identify satire (“The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices”). For just a few examples see here, here, here and here.
The next step is to determine whether to believe the author's claims. Here are some questions that we encourage campers to ask themselves:
- Is the piece reported by a credible news outlet? Respected news providers stake their reputations on factual reporting, and they take fact-checking seriously. If you don’t recognize the publication, do your research about it. Some websites are known for their questionable “news” while others have won awards for their high-quality reporting. We should also be careful with individual blogs and social media, where someone can write whatever they want with few consequences.
- What are the reporter’s sources? Does the reporter say where they got their information? Did they interview people with real expertise on the subject? Look out for fake experts. For example, a local police chief is a great source for a story on local crime rates, but is probably not the best person to comment on global affairs.
- Who stands to gain or lose from the story? Sometimes an author will have an agenda beyond just informing the public. Does the person represent a political party, organization or industry group that wants to sway public opinion? Is the author or publication asking for donations so that they can take political action on the issue? A writer’s bias doesn’t mean the story is automatically false, but it’s worth looking carefully at their claims.
- Does the story stand up to fact-checking? If a story is true, it should be supported by other sources. A major story will usually be confirmed by other news outlets and fact-checking websites. But be careful: fake stories can spread quickly online. Some websites will simply re-publish a story, and many people will share it without thinking critically. Just because you a story has been repeated, that doesn’t make it true.
- Are there sides of the story that haven't been reported? If so, why did the author leave out those details or perspectives? Different people interpret facts in different ways. In order to understand something we see in the media, we need to try and understand the author's perspective, motivations and blind spots.
But don’t stop here! Psychologists tell us that as human beings, we think much more critically about stories and ideas that don’t support our existing beliefs than about those that do. This is called confirmation bias, and it affects all of us - no matter how objective we think we are.
For that reason, we should add another question to the list above:
Do I believe this story because I WANT to believe it?
Do I disbelieve this story because I DON’T WANT it to be true?
We need to reflect just as deeply on news that confirms our beliefs as we do on news that challenges them, and adjust our beliefs if necessary. That means listening to people whose views differ from our own, and doing so with curiosity and respect rather than always trying to “win”.
A person’s emotions and even their identity get wrapped up in debates over facts and ideas. A leader needs to understand that about others - and themselves - if they’re going to communicate well with their team and keep doing the right thing.
The first time we did the Facts & Feelings workshop with a school group (grades 6 to 8), a student observed about one article: “I don’t really believe it, but I want to believe it!” It was a very thoughtful observation and it allowed us to discuss how we can fight confirmation bias in our own lives.
To help your kids think critically about what they see and read, look at different articles, websites and videos with the above questions in mind. Turn it into a game! “Believe it or Not?” is one of the most popular Spice! Leadership activities. Participants love becoming media detectives and learning more about the world around them.
In short, living and leading in the 21st century means making sense of huge quantities of information. We need to understand what we believe, what we want to believe, and what other people want us to believe - and we need the ability to have tough conversations without getting defensive or lashing out unfairly. It's a skill that we can all develop. The earlier we start and the more often we practice, the easier it becomes.
Spice! Leadership’s summer day camps teach media literacy and other leadership topics to girls between the ages of 10 and 14. Find us in Ottawa and Kanata in July and August 2018. For more information and to register, see spiceleadership.ca/girls. To bring the Facts & Feelings workshop to your school or community group, contact us.