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Media literacy: Illinois high schools are teaching students how to spot fake news

Illinois public schools, for the first time, are required to teach students media literacy beginning this academic year.

When Dane Erbach was in middle school during the mid-1990s, before the information superhighway rolled through, students turned to library books and encyclopedias for facts.

Today, students are likely to get their information first from social media sources such as TikTok, the 39-year-old McHenry High School teacher said. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easily misled, Erbach said.

Although adults who did not grow up with the internet have had to figure out on their own whether information they found online was reliable, many of today’s students are aware of the ulterior motives of some sites they stumble upon, Erbach said.

Still, Erbach talks about media literacy with his first-year journalism students. They look at websites that work to fact-check politicians, and compare websites and other disinformation sites.

“I tell my students, ‘You guys are learning skills that adults do not have,’ ” he said.

English teacher Dane Erbach teaches about media literacy Tuesday Nov. 22, 2022, during a class at McHenry High School's freshman campus, 1012 N. Green St. in McHenry. The students are using a method where they determine the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of a story.

In an era of alternative facts, where not all online news is created equally, such instruction falls in line with a new requirement Illinois lawmakers put in place this academic year. Public high schools throughout the state must include a unit of media literacy in their curriculum.

Although halfway through the first school year with the requirement in place, Shaw Local News Network checked in with districts across northern Illinois to see how it was being implemented.

Illinois public schools, for the first time, are required to teach students media literacy beginning this academic year.

Many school districts throughout the region said they already had been teaching media literacy skills in some form. Others said they expanded their lesson plans to include it or made other adjustments to meet the new standards, the SLNN review found.

Depending on the district, media literacy could be offered as part of students’ English, science, social studies or history classes, officials said.

In Plainfield School District 202, for example, media literacy skills are taught across the curriculum, said Paula Sereleas, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The work focuses on accessing and analyzing information and sources and distinguishing fact from opinion, Sereleas said in a written statement.

“Media literacy is not taught as a one-and-done unit but as a skill that students will carry with them throughout their education and post-graduation,” Sereleas said.

In Lincoln-Way High School District 210, the media literacy component is taught in English, government and human geography classes, director of curriculum Renae Goldie said.

Aileen Koesche, Lincoln-Way Central’s media center director, gives a presentation to students about media literacy.
Photo courtesy of Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210

Joliet Township High School District 204 includes the unit as part of its library curriculum that is integrated into English, American government, history, science and other electives, spokeswoman Kristine Schlismann said.

Adam Hurder, executive director of educational services at Valley View School District 365U, said the district taught media literacy before the new law.

Students at Romeoville High School and Bolingbrook High School learned about media literacy in several settings including U.S. History and government classes, Hurder said. District 365U is expanding media literacy units both this academic year and next, Hurder said.

Mendota High School also has been teaching media literacy across disciplines and grade levels since before the new media literacy law was passed. Teachers at Mendota focus on analyzing sources using online tools, Principal Denise Aughenbaugh said.

Jason Artman, Mendota High School’s social studies department chair, is a member of the Illinois Civics Organization. He said his focus on civics led him to teach media literacy skills in his classroom, which then spread to other departments in the school.

“It’s a skill I hope I’m only helping reinforce as teachers at all grade levels take a look at its importance,” Artman said. “And it’s a skill that we are never going to not need to practice – those who are using the media to manipulate messages are very skilled at it – so we have to keep adapting, and we have to keep helping our students adapt.”

At Hall High School in Spring Valley, Principal Adam Meyer said the media literacy standards are covered in different classes. Some portions are covered in a sociology course. The social responsibility and civics aspects are taught in social studies classes, and the analysis and evaluation of the media messages is revisited in English classes.

Meyer said Hall High School also is looking to hire a computer science teacher for next year to expand its curriculum, allowing students more opportunity to be taught aspects of journalistic standards.

In Kaneland School District 302 in western Kane County, media literacy is taught in different classes at the high school level. Patrick Raleigh, director of educational services for grades 6-12, said the subject is taught in technology, English and some social studies courses.

“On average, a unit is about a week or two depending on the content,” he said. “These media literacy requirements are not taught in isolation – rather, they are integrated into content most times.”

Similar to Kaneland, media literacy in Geneva School District 304 is taught in courses such as social studies and English classes, district spokeswoman Sandra Manisco said.

Sterling High School has taken a more novel approach, so to speak.

Teacher Darwin Nettleton incorporated two books about World War II into his English class.

The first was “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his experiences in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The other was “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of track star and Army Air Corps bombardier Louis Zamperini, who survived more than two years as a prisoner of war in Japanese camps.

To align with the media literacy requirement, students discuss rhetoric and propaganda with an emphasis on persuasion and ethics. To keep students connected to current events, another English teacher refers students to social media then engages with them on their critical thinking of what they read and watch.

Alexandra Miller, dean of students, said media literacy already had been covered – especially within sophomore and junior English courses – before the new requirement. The renewed effort called for teachers in the English department to formulate an approach.

They embedded media literacy in junior English courses because rhetorical analysis – the how and why people communicate – already was part of the preparation for standardized tests.

Assignments can include discussion about bias in a news article, a written report on a web post or speech, or a research presentation from multiple sources to support an argument.

At Dixon High School, business teacher Lisa Guenther devotes several days to emphasize fact-checking and verification, especially of fake videos.

One of her approaches is to instruct students on “lateral reading” – that is, having multiple browser tabs open to compare different accounts of the same story. They compare videos of the same event and see how they were edited, and to what purpose, as a means of corroborating the claims of the news story.

McHenry High School uses a test to determine if a source found online is trustworthy, said Gina Nomikoudis, who also teaches English and is the high school’s English division chair. That test asks students to consider the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of the author and the content.

Students use this test to determine whether that source should be included in their research, Erbach and Nomikoudis said.

“They don’t believe everything they see, and they do question things,” Nomikoudis said.

DeKalb High School teacher Brad Vest, who teaches humanities and literature, said teachers in the district have a track record of weaving elements of media literacy into coursework. Vest said students are known to study things beyond the traditional text such as film, music, art, nonfiction and architecture.

“The place that we probably reach them the best is with that implicit bias that exists in messaging – that just because a place calls itself a news source, it doesn’t mean they’re really giving you objective news,” Vest said. “I think that’s a place we reach them a lot. Because in their world, they’re getting their news from TikTok and Twitter, and we’ve got to teach them to sort through their sources.”

Although Kendall County schools have not made changes based on the new law, administrators said their schools already have been providing media literacy education. Yorkville High School does not have a specific unit of media literacy, but Principal David Travis said they have been a statewide leader in the integration of digital tools over the past six years.

Travis said his students learn media literacy through the incorporation of “real-world” technologies in many of their classes, such as evaluating source/bias, creating content with technology, and responsible use and practices.

Like Yorkville, Oswego School District 308 high schools have not made changes since the law went into effect but has it embedded in regular content.

Faith Dahlquist, associate superintendent for educational services, said that in several classes, Oswego students learn about source credibility, digital footprints, digital permanence and the effect of social media.

One of the courses in Oswego that emphasizes media literacy is a required civics course, which Dahlquist said all students must take to meet graduation requirements.

“It is our belief that the future is changing all the time, so we’re enabling students to continue to learn and give them the tools that they will need after they graduate from us,” Dahlquist said.

‘The very basis of civil society’

Mark Baldwin, an independent communications consultant and former journalist who most recently was executive editor at the Rockford Register-Star, gives occasional lectures on media literacy.

He recommended always asking about the standards of verification behind information and about potential agendas. People should learn the difference between types of information, such as fact-based reporting compared with advertising, he said.

“Ultimately, what’s at stake here is the very basis of civil society,” Baldwin said. “We must agree on a common set of facts in order to govern ourselves.”

Baldwin classified the general population’s level of media literacy as “mediocre at best.” Baldwin said he believes people are afraid to adopt media literacy strategies because it might change deeply held beliefs or they believe advocates of media literacy have an agenda when they don’t.

Baldwin also said an alarming number of people don’t know the basics of how government works, which extends into basic civic literacy.

Erin McNeill, president and founder of Media Literacy Now, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit advocacy group working to promote media literacy, said she started in 2013 because she was concerned at how certain messages in the media, such as the way women were portrayed, might potentially influence her children’s thoughts and feelings.

“Every kind of media has messages,” McNeill said. “And they influence people, especially children who are just absolute sponges, learning every day from what they see around them.”

Today’s media messages are extremely persuasive and informed by research on human psychology, which makes them trickier to dissect and discern, McNeill said.

A national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that youth ages 8 to 18 spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media each day.

According to the Media Literacy Now website, many media messages contribute to “obesity, bullying and aggression, low self-esteem, depression, negative body image, risky sexual behavior and substance abuse.”

Media Literacy Now reached out to Maaria Mozaffar, asking her to help write the Illinois legislation that became law in 2021. She and the MLA group “wanted to see a legislative solution to media literacy,” Mozaffar said.

“Digital media and media in general is the dominating force for information for people today, especially the new generation,” Mozaffar said, adding that the youngest generations are “really involved in it, in a pervasive way.”

If youth understands where those voices are coming from, they can better understand it “to make it useful for themselves,” Mozaffar said. By learning about media literacy, youth can “break out of echo chambers … and hear a different perspective to make the right decisions,” she said.

“If we don’t teach how to use the tools, we are setting them up to be hammered and manipulated,” Mozaffar said.

Bill Cassidy, a Northern Illinois University journalism professor, stressed the importance of high school educators integrating media literacy into their teachings. Among the benefits to be gained from media literacy, Cassidy said, is students learning not to take things at face value.

Before the internet, information was “vetted in a more specific way,” he said.

Now, although there’s more information available, it’s up to consumers to evaluate the information and separate the credible from the nonsensical. Cassidy said the recent rise in sentiments concerning the existence of fake news could be attributed to a lack of media literacy.

“There are all kinds of things that impact what we see, hear and read in the news and in other forms of media,” Cassidy said. “The more knowledgeable we are all about those kinds things, too, the better off we will be.”

Students’ perspective

DeKalb High School senior Ethan McCarter said he usually gets information from the media on his cellphone. McCarter said he is able to discern which information sources should be trusted.

“It usually depends which website it’s from,” McCarter said. “More of the well-known websites will have the more truthful news. I usually lean toward those websites. I trust those.”

McCarter, however, said he is not aware of any units of instruction in his classes that touch on media literacy and thinks most kids learn about it themselves. McCarter said he thinks media literacy would be important to learn in school.

McCarter said that part of the reason some people believe fake news exists may be because there is a bit of mystery surrounding the processes and methods of the news media.

“Some journalists do take things to a far extent to get their news, and sometimes they do alter the news … to get a better story,” McCarter said.

Alayna Majkrzak, a 17-year-old McHenry High School senior, said she has learned through media literacy instruction the importance of fact-checking.

Majkrzak, who also serves as features editor of the school paper, the McHenry Messenger, said that although students are told to check for a source’s credibility, there’s not enough focus on how to do that.

“Media literacy is something that needs to be more than just touched on in schools. There are so many websites that are misinformed, and if students do not know how to spot that, then as a society there is no way for us to grow,” Majkrzak said. “The generation that is in high school now is more exposed to news than ever with social media, and if there is not someone to stop that spread of misinformation, all progress could be lost.”

Shaw Local News Network reporters Brenda Schory, David Petesch and Troy E. Taylor contributed to this story.

Janelle Walker

Janelle Walker

Originally from North Dakota, Janelle covered the suburbs and collar counties for nearly 20 years before taking a career break to work in content marketing. She is excited to be back in the newsroom.

Megann Horstead

Megann Horstead

Megann Horstead is an award-winning news reporter for the Daily Chronicle, covering city government and schools in DeKalb. Her news reporting experience led to a first place award in local government beat reporting from the Illinois Press Association.

Denise  Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor for The Herald-News in Joliet. She covers a variety of human interest stories. She also writes the long-time weekly tribute feature “An Extraordinary Life about local people who have died. She studied journalism at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, now the University of St. Francis.

Olivia Doak

Olivia Doak

Olivia covers Peru and La Salle for the NewsTribune