Information Literacy Lesson: Evaluating Fake News Headlines

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As a former student of Rhetoric, and an avid satirical news writer and reader myself, I am fascinated by the information literacy issue surrounding fake news. Fake news aims to achieve three things: to entertain the reader, to provide commentary on a social or political issue, and to force readers to think critically about the information they consume. But what happens when thousands of people are fooled by a fake news article, believing it to be true, despite all the glaring hints? Some may say Fake News is a threat to information literacy, but I say, it’s more important now than ever before. Fake news is an intelligent, multi-layered form of media that conveys its message while proving its point. It’s also developing its own unique rhetorical style, which can be taught and used as a relevant, attention grabbing “evaluate your sources” lesson.

I created a 20 minute lesson to teach students how to distinguish between fake and real news headlines. My lesson plan includes pre-assessment, active learning, and both formative and summative assessment, and can be slightly shortened or significantly extended to suit various time frames. While the introduction draws upon the relevance and difficulty of this skill, humorous examples are used throughout the lesson which maintain student engagement.

The core of the lesson is a list of 5 rhetorical identifiers look for when evaluating a resource.

5 Elements of Fake News Headlines:

  1. Unnecessary adjectives
    • Real headlines are as succinct and to-the-point as possible and would never waste a word on an adjective that wasn’t vitally important to the news story
  2. Unnecessary details
    • Space is at a premium in real news headlines. Facts that don’t contribute to the big picture of the story are almost never included.
  3. Headline is ridiculously vague
    • A common type of fake news article uses vague terms to comment on wide-spread social phenomena. It’s often to the point that it could be about anyone (excellent examples can be found in The Onion’s Local News section)
    • Real News headlines want to convey credibility, and are usually very specific and factual
  4. Absurdity
    • This is an easy one: If it’s absolutely impossible, it’s probably fake news.
  5. Social Criticism or Political Mockery
    • Every good fake news article should contain an element of social or political commentary – otherwise it’s just a lie. Sometimes the headline alone functions as the commentary

Satirical News is a relatively recent phenomenon, and there aren’t many public experts in the field…yet. I wanted to make my lesson plan, slides, and exercise available as a resource for anyone who wants to incorporate a rhetorically-based Fake News Evaluation into a class.

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