Teaching us to think: Misinformation and reliable news sources

By Rachel Horowitz
Posted 11/26/20

I recently came across a 1995 case study called “Teaching Zack to Think,” where a 14-year-old student finds a seemingly credible internet article that claims the Holocaust never existed.

Zack …

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Teaching us to think: Misinformation and reliable news sources

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I recently came across a 1995 case study called “Teaching Zack to Think,” where a 14-year-old student finds a seemingly credible internet article that claims the Holocaust never existed.

Zack is convinced because: “The page is simple and clear. It’s written in a calm, logical tone. The page is clearly intended for experts in its field.” Zack eventually realizes that this is actually a personal web page, and the author has ties to the KKK and white power groups.

The study’s author concludes: “to survive in the future economy, kids must learn how to research, publish and communicate working with the Internet and other information tools.” So what happens when Zack and his fellow students — who would be more than 40 years old by now — join the hordes of people decrying media outlets for sharing “fake news”?

I believe that a huge portion of media distrust comes from our inability to evaluate a news source for its credibility. If you’re reading this page, you should know that the “Viewpoints” section is going to be much more opinionated than a “Features” page.

The problem arises when an opinion source masquerades as a news source. An internet search isn’t laid out the same way as your local newspaper. When in doubt, I recommend viewing multiple articles on the same topic. This helps skirt our heuristic tendency toward reading articles that reinforce our own beliefs (also known as “confirmation bias”).

Misinformation can propagate when a media outlet — whether amateur or professional — selectively shares information or omits necessary context. Think of sound-bite quotes on TV news channels. The notorious rise of QAnon and its conspiracy theory followers hinged on cryptic information shared from an anonymous source claiming they were a political insider. I often see people on my own Facebook feed sharing content from satirical sites like The Onion or The Babylon Bee, and it’s not entirely their fault. Social media sites are quick to draw viewers into a rabbit hole of similar articles or videos.

The news is no longer largely managed by a handful of media conglomerates — now, anyone can create a website and share content that supports their personal views. They present themselves as news alternatives. This reminds me of the following quip: “If alternative medicine worked, it would just be called medicine.” Similarly, if alternative news was true, it would just be called news.

So what can we do once we know how to analyze a source? Look into the author, evaluate the article’s purpose and look at the website link itself. Then repeat this process for multiple articles on the same topic. We can teach ourselves to think, and we can analyze how our biases play into what we read and share. We can admit when we are wrong, and we can gently assist the Zacks of our community.

Rachel Horowitz resides in Chatham County and works in Pittsboro. She is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and can be reached at millennialmusings.nc@gmail.com.

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