Fact or Fiction, How Do You Discern the Difference?
When I was younger, an experience helped me realize fact or fiction isn’t always as obvious as it may seem.
I had spent a summer living and working in Rwanda. People travel there from all over the world for a chance to observe its mountain gorillas. The movie Gorillas in the Mist had come out a few years earlier, leaving a lasting impression on many, myself included. I talked to friends and family who experienced the famous gorilla trek first hand, and read what I could of local accounts about the real life experience of the woman the movie portrayed.
Several months after I returned to the states, the subject of the Rwandan gorillas came up among friends. I mentioned reading about Dian Fossey and a friend quickly informed everyone that I was mistaken. “The film was about Jane Goodall,” she said. I insisted otherwise and explained my familiarity with the subject, but was confidently dismissed. There was no immediate way to look the information up, and my friend could not be swayed. So, I eventually gave up. Afterwards, I started to doubt my own recollection of the subject. After all, my friend seemed so certain.
Dian Fossey, who studied Rwanda’s gorillas up close, was the subject of Gorillas in the Mist. But, it didn’t really matter in the end. In my experience, the loudest, most insistent voice was assumed correct, knowledge source – irrelevant. I was taken aback by how little my descriptions of why I was certain about the information I shared mattered, especially when my friend could not recall her own. She simply repeated what she believed to be fact and insisted any other information must be wrong.
Recognizing factual or accurate information is especially challenging today. We’re often inundated with so many different versions of events online, on TV, and radio, that it’s difficult to know what’s true. Familiar is often mistaken for fact and there’s a natural tendency to frequent sources that confirm our own hunches or point of view. What is real and what is fake? How can we help our children tell the difference?
Teaching Students the Difference Between Fact and Fiction
Teaching students about facts and fiction used to be simple. If it can be proven, it’s a fact. If it is something you think or feel that others can agree or disagree with, it’s fiction. Alaska is the biggest state in the United States. The water that runs through our pipes and faucets should be clear. In our most recent presidential election, one candidate won the popular vote, while the other won the Electoral College and, therefore, the presidency. These are facts that can be looked up, verified, and proven. However, it’s also true that among the abundance of information out there on all of these examples, you are likely to find sources that contradict most of them.
Misinformation Is Everywhere
Youtube comments under informative clips and PSAs about well documented tragedies are frequently followed by post after post insisting the facts it contained were untrue. Claims that information has been distorted or that victims deserve blame are common as well. Many also contain links to unreliable sites where viewers are encouraged to get the real story.
Discouraging children from using technology, visiting untrusted websites, using social media, or exploring online won’t keep all the false or contradictory messages out. What they don’t overhear in conversations, come across in books and magazines, or see in advertisements or movies will likely come from peers with access to additional resources. Helping students better understand the importance of knowing where information comes from and identify bias or propaganda can have a much larger impact. It equips them with the tools necessary to verify or dispute what they see, read, and hear before passing it on.
Websites like snopes.com and fact check.org are helpful resources for evaluating what students read. Once a few false stories have been identified, discuss what these examples have in common and how they differ from the verified ones. They may notice commonalities, like headlines that profess to tell the real story or uncover something others don’t want you to know, which will help them recognize future false posts.
Another resource for older students, parents, and educators is The News Literacy Project. This nonprofit organization dedicated to educating middle and high school students about separating fact from fiction using real-world learning experiences. The group lists learning to seek out news that helps them become more informed members of their local and global communities and exercising “civility and respect” in online communications among the reported outcomes from a majority of its program participants.
Commonsensemedia.org suggests scrutinizing the quality of websites, finding out whether more reliable sites contain the same information, and reading the About Us section for more information on its sources. It also recommends asking the following questions when viewing media with your children:
- Who made this?
- Who is the target audience?
- Does someone profit if you click on it? Who paid for this content?
- Who might benefit or be harmed by this message?
- What important information is left out of the message?
- Is this credible? Why or why not?
Teach Children to Be Curious and Thoughtful
It has been said, You’re entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts. In today’s 24 hour news cycle, the abundance of misinformation flooding social media, websites and airwaves suggests otherwise. Consequently, when people accept information without question and pass it on as fact, it can have a polarizing impact. Teaching children to be curious and thoughtful when pursuing knowledge is far more powerful. It can help foster independence, inspire healthy debate and instill compassion.
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