Can you tell the real from the fake?

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The term news literacy is defined as the ability to use critical thinking to judge the reliability and credibility of information, whether it comes via print, television or the Internet.

How we judge the news affects what we understand about world affairs and ultimately how we vote. If we don’t know how to tell if TV, radio, print, websites and social media are telling the truth or disseminating fake news, propaganda, hoaxes, rumors, satire and advertising, there is a website from the Center for News Literacy that might help (

As well, the online university Coursera adapted into a six-week class the news literacy idea that began at the journalism school of State University of New York at Stony Brook a decade ago. The course concentrates on learning to decipher the distinctions between journalism, opinion journalism, and blowhards, what the meaning of fairness and balance is, and the responsibilities that come with having a recorder/TV/printing press in your pocket (that would be your cell phone).

Coursera classes look like this:
Week 1: The power of information is now in the hands of consumers.
Week 2: What makes journalism different from other types of information?
Week 3: Where can we find trustworthy information?
Week 4: How to tell what’s fair and what’s biased.
Week 5: How to apply news literacy concepts in real life.
Week 6: Meeting the challenges of digital citizenship.

Anyone interested can pay to take a graded course or take the course for free with no grading.

The site was designed to teach students how to deal with decisions they face now and that will increase as they come of age. According to press releases from Stony Brook, the results of the class are good: News Literacy students routinely consume more news from more sources, rate keeping up with the news as important, register to vote in high numbers, and can deconstruct video news stories effectively.

For the past decade the News Literacy course has been added to the curriculum of 50 universities in the U.S. and been taught in Hong Kong, Beijing, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Australia and Poland.

One of the original class instructors, Richard Hornik, veteran journalist from Time, Inc, said, “The ability of the next generation of citizens to judge the reliability and relevance of information will be a leading indicator of the public health of civil societies around the world.”

A paper published by the non-partisan public think tank Brookings Institution encouraged news literacy classes when it wrote that we’re living in a time in which the public perception of the reliability of professionals in media lies between bankers and car salesmen. Because we have trouble knowing if what we’re getting is fact or fiction, everybody in America needs a little help in critical thinking skills to spot the real journalists.

In a democracy, citizens get the government they deserve if they don’t vote from the facts. In this 21st century, we might get the journalism we want – as well as those public servants called politicians that are supposed to run the country for us – if we learn how to tell what is and what is not real news.

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