On Monday I had the honor and pleasure of getting to speak at an after-school program in my community that has a media club. I have written several articles about their program and all it does for kids in our city, and apparently I did a good enough job that they were willing to ask me back to talk to the kids and answer some of their questions.
This was a great opportunity — one I’m afraid I totally flubbed. I misread the invitation email, and walked into the community center thinking I was coming to speak with high school students. I’d outlined a talk about sourcing, fact checking and the media topic du jour: fake news. It was an appropriate talk for 10th graders. For first through sixth graders — not so much.
But that was exactly what awaited me when I arrived: a semi-circle of bright, shiny elementary- and middle-school-age faces. So, I settled in and tried to salvage what I could from my notes, thinking I’d need to “dumb down” my comments and questions considerably.
I quickly learned two things: 1) Don’t underestimate kids who have someone who believes in them; 2) There’s a lot some adults could learn from an elementary school media club.
These kids definitely have someone who believes in them — well, several someones, at a minimum. The staff at Zoe Kids Cafe is passionate about working with these young men and women, and their media sponsor, Emily, had obviously been diligent in teaching them.
The first item in my notes was to discuss the difference between opinion and fact: the heart of the “fake news” debacle in American society today. I had armed myself with several examples to illustrate the difference, but I had no need. The kids immediately started giving great examples of the difference between opinion and fact, and several of the older kids were able to articulate the difference with surprising clarity.
When I asked them about fake news they were well aware of the phenomenon. One young lady was very passionate about some irresponsible and unverified reporting on Justin Bieber. Poor Bieber — fake news can be a real kick in the swagger. And, they all generally knew fake news had been a contentious issue in our most recent unpresidential election. Emily, you’re doing fine work.
Okay kiddos, on to the bonus round: let’s discuss the difference between news that really is fake, and news that people say is fake because it contradicts their preconceived notions and biases. Before I could get more than a sentence into this a young man raised his hand and volunteered this: “Sometimes it’s fake news because it’s not true, and sometimes it’s fake news just because someone didn’t like what it said, so they called it fake.” I glanced over at Emily. She was beaming with pride for her students, as she should be.
Congratulations, young man. You’ve grasped what has eluded the mass of the American public for years: sometimes things you watch, read and hear are fake because they’re simply bullshit, and sometimes we say they’re fake to avoid facts that don’t align with our preferred world view.
The media club went on to offer several other tips that would be beneficial for some of our nation’s politicians, journalists and social commentators at the highest levels. The young lady so worried about Mr. Bieber suggested that if something doesn’t sound right in one place, you can look in other places to see if they say the same thing. Aha! Yes, young lady, there is more than one news source in our great society. You can check multiple sources to make sure the facts are generally uniform across several reputable (there’s a loaded word) news outlets.
Finally, another young man, who had been mostly silent throughout the talk (perhaps because I was about as exciting as a saltine sandwich) nearly knocked me off my chair with this bit of revolutionary wisdom: “If somebody only tells you what you want to hear, you should check it.”
Congratulations young man. You just bankrupted Fox News and MSNBC and quite possibly saved Western Civilization. If our nation’s adults listened to this promising middle school gentleman, ignorance generators like Breitbart and Occupy Democrats would have a brief existence indeed.
Needless to say, I left my session with the media club feeling pretty damn good. It wasn’t because I’d really taught them anything. It was because they’d taught me a great deal. They taught me not to underestimate kids, and to feed them as much knowledge as possible — the important parts will stick. They taught me there’s no excuse for our wanton consumption and sharing of conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods. If a group of elementary and middle schoolers can figure out that The Blaze is complete shit, what excuse could 63 million registered voters really have? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they gave me hope that our Republic doesn’t have to make the final swirling plunge into Idiocracy.
If a group of kids from the poorest schools in a poor school district from one of our nation’s most fiscally-challenged states could unlearn the disease that is blindly biased consumption of fake news, then there surely is hope for the rest of us. That hope, of course, is predicated on a big if: There is hope IF we decide we want to set aside our biases, stop gorging ourselves in the shit trough of social media “news,” and begin to take personal responsibility for the news we consume and curate. That’s a big if, and it’s an if we must overcome if we want to pass a nation worth having on to our children.
In closing, I’d offer the same advice I gave the kiddos at the media club (but with a bit more invective):
- If a news outlet didn’t exist before Facebook, be very careful. It may be shit.
- If a news outlet has a long history that predates Facebook, be careful and verify. It may be polluted with shit.
- If a news outlet only tells you what you want to hear, it’s most likely shit. Don’t fill your head with shit.
- Take responsibility for what you share on social media. If it makes you giggle gleefully because it’s so juicy or damning, it’s most likely shit. The world’s just usually not gleeful giggle-worthy.
- Check your shit.
- Don’t share fake shit.
- Give a damn. Give a damn about our country, our society and our future. Give a damn about our kids. Put their future above that desire to share something that vilifies whoever it is you’ve been told by shit media to fear or hate.
- Say no to click bait. Just say no. Don’t click it. Don’t. Not even a little. I said no.
- Hang out in the center. Stay away from the far wings of crap news and the click bait (see #7). Take the time to consume news that’s been researched, fact-checked and curated by frigging professionals who at least make an ethical effort to set aside personal bias. This chart, made by Vanessa Otero at the height of our late electoral embarrassment, and updated this August, isn’t perfect (what is?), but it’s pretty damn good. Hang out in the center, consume well-researched, professional journalism, and then make your own conclusions. And share those conclusions, if you want to share something.
Finally, teach your kids, your family members and friends to follow these simple guidelines. Love them enough to save them from click bait (No!) and shit news.
Thank you to Emily and the kids at Zoe Kids Cafe for teaching me, and for giving me a wee bit of hope for the American experiment. I pray we all put in the effort, and give you the nation you deserve.
James Neal is a writer, editor and columnist for a local newspaper that hangs out somewhere in the bubble in Ms. Otero’s diagram labeled “Actual News Found Here.” His liberal use of profanity does not reflect the editorial style of his employer.