Families & the Community

In W.Va., Teachers Turn Trump’s ‘Fake News’ Attacks Into Teachable Moments

By Benjamin Herold — February 21, 2017 7 min read
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The controversy at West Virginia’s Ripley High started to snowball in mid-January, shortly after then-President-elect Donald Trump used a press conference to lambaste the cable-television outlet CNN as “fake news.”

The exchange went viral on social media. A small group of strongly pro-Trump students at Ripley took up the incoming president’s rallying cry. And in the weeks that followed, a broad swath of teachers and students in this small-town community of 3,200 near the Ohio line suddenly found themselves tiptoeing over uncertain ground.

Even CNN 10, the cable channel’s classroom-friendly digital news program, whose host is known more for his silly puns than any political bias, became an occasional lightning rod. Some Ripley students suggested that the program should be replaced by Fox News.

“I try to make sure my students see all sides on every issue,” said civics teacher Jo Phillips, who grew up in Jackson County, which Trump won with 73 percent of the vote and whose county seat is Ripley.

“But so much is happening so fast,” Phillips said. “We’re on overload right now.”

‘Fake news’ and schools

Schools everywhere are facing similar pressures. As the country’s partisan political divide has grown, Americans’ distrust of those on the other side has become more intense. And for years, researchers have warned about young people’s inability to gauge the reliability of online information. Those forces converged during the 2016 presidential campaign, when an explosion of blatantly false election-related stories hit the internet and social media.

Seemingly overnight, “fake news” became a phenomenon. Just as quickly, the phrase turned into a ubiquitous catch-all, used to discredit any reporting one might find disagreeable.

Its most prominent platform is President Trump’s Twitter feed, where the president has repeatedly used the term to lash out at CNN and other news organizations.

With public confidence in the news media at a record low, many of the president’s supporters (and 25 million Twitter followers) have delighted in such tactics.

But even some conservative observers say the president’s attacks are corrosive, especially in schools.

Actual “fake news” is a real problem, but CNN doesn’t qualify, said Don Irvine, the chairman of the nonprofit Accuracy in Media, a conservative-leaning media watchdog.

When President Trump tars the news channel, suggesting without evidence that everything it produces is false, students are taught a dangerous lesson, Irvine said.

“If the administration wants to put out facts that show a specific story is wrong, fine,” he said. “But if they’re going around talking about ‘fake news,’ and it’s not really true, how are students taught to discern what is real and what is fake?”

Media literacy in the classroom

That’s where groups like Media Literacy Now, a Watertown, Mass.-based nonprofit, come in.

If more students are actually paying attention to the news and to government, that’s something teachers can build on, said Erin McNeill, the group’s president.

And if a student complains about a news outlet being biased, that’s a teachable moment, McNeill said.

It’s all about leveraging students’ interests to cultivate their critical-thinking skills.

“I don’t think it’s a teacher’s role to say, ‘These are legitimate news sources,’ or ‘This is fake news,’ ” McNeill said. “A better approach is to guide the students’ investigation—have kids compare how different outlets cover the same topic, help them look for the bias in every source, and teach them to apply the same critical-thinking questions to everyone.”

That was the approach used by Kelley Adcock, a 9th grade remedial-English teacher at Ripley High, when students at the West Virginia school recently began discussing a post they’d seen on Facebook, about pop star Madonna’s profane and inflammatory remarks at the Women’s March in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration.

“In my experience, these discussions usually start with something that touches a kid personally,” Adcock said.

And when students feel disenfranchised, it can be particularly challenging to get them to move beyond their initial emotional reactions, she said.

“The politicians hate us, the cops hate us, our teachers hate us, so why should we pay attention to anyone?” Adcock said, describing the perspective of some of her students.

Some common prompts can help move the discussion forward.

Who published the story? Where did they get their information? What sources were cited? What perspectives were left out? How was this story covered elsewhere?

When Adcock avoids telling her students what to think, and instead focuses on tools and strategies for how to think, she starts to see movement. Students’ minds aren’t changed, Adcock said. But their language might soften, and they may become more willing to research other perspectives.

It takes time, though. And as the teachable moments at Ripley have piled up one on top of the other, time has been in short supply.

Students had questions about a dossier of salacious, unverified allegations about Mr. Trump, described in a CNN report and then published in full by Buzzfeed. Some students were upset at the prospect of watching the inauguration on the left-leaning cable-news channel MSNBC. Others disputed the reliability of Gallup’s presidential-approval ratings, saying they had seen more favorable numbers for the president on Fox News.

Ripley teachers responded with discussions about anonymously sourced reports, tips for identifying bias, and lessons on interpreting polling results.

Keeping up has been exhausting. But the stakes have never seemed higher.

“If you show your class something about identifying biased media, and the kids take that home to a parent who thinks one of those news sources is the Bible, that parent is going to be in the school board office, screaming for your job,” Adcock said.

‘The boy who cried wolf’

Jane Elizabeth, the manager of the accountability-journalism program at the American Press Institute, said she feels for teachers dealing with such challenges.

She’s also grateful.

“Teachers are so well equipped to handle these topics. They do it all the time, from climate change to sex education,” she said.

Ripley seniors Olivia Ludtman and Jordan Whited agreed, for the most part.

“Some of our teachers do a really good job trying to show all sides and helping us know what to look for,” Ludtman said. “But there are some who you know are for one side or another, and they want you to be on their side.”

At home, both Ludtman and Whited said, their families stick mostly to Fox News, local TV stations, and the local newspaper.

Both students follow Trump on Twitter and spend lots of time on social media.

Unlike some of their classmates, they like CNN 10, bad puns and all.

The network’s cable news programming is another story, however.

“Take the inauguration. CNN showed more of the nonviolent protests instead of what was actually happening,” Whited said, referring to episodes of vandalism and violence that received significant attention on conservative media.

Notably, however, neither student attributed the episode to CNN being “fake news.”

“There’s going to be bias in any station you watch,” Whited said. “But if Trump is going to call CNN that, he should actually investigate what they’re saying, not try to embarrass them on national television.”

As difficult as the past few months have been, Phillips takes some measure of satisfaction from such analysis.

And recently, Phillips said, she’s noticed things getting a little easier. The more relentlessly President Trump attacks CNN and other news outlets, she said, the less seriously some of her students seem to take his claims.

“It’s like the story of the boy who cried wolf,” Phillips said. “After a while, you kind of start thinking, ‘How could it possibly always be fake?’”

Photo: President Donald Trump calls on a reporter during a news conference, Feb. 16, in the East Room of the White House. Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.