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Listening with a skeptical ear:
A lesson on how to check out
source accuracy and credibility


Listening with a skeptical ear: A lesson on how to check out source accuracy
and credibility

Tis the season.

With candidates jostling for positions in the 2016 presidential election and numerous state, local races taking shape and issues developing readers and viewers face an onslaught of information not limited to politics.

Student journalists must able to separate valid from questionable information and know how to determine if sources and their messages are credible.

•  Students will be able to evaluate information they obtain and pass on
•  Students will be able to identify and find credible sources to verify information
• Students will apply approaches and skills from the exercise and create ethical guidelines and procedures for skeptical knowing.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
 CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
 CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

150 minutes

Materials / resources
• Watching only Fox News makes you less informed than watching no news at all
• Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information (book review)
• Journalist Bill Kovach about the new book ‘Blur’
• Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information
• Missouri sheriff’s ‘In God We Trust’ patrol car decals spark church vs. state debate
• “Ask these 10 questions to make good ethical decisions”

Materials referenced/used
In addition to the materials linked, we would urge teachers to  check out these two books for a more detailed look at skeptical knowing and a new look at the mission of journalism.
• Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Bloomsbury, 2010
• The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Three Rivers Press, 2007.

Lesson step-by-step

Pre-Day 1

  1. Assign students the “Watching only Fox News” study and tell them to plan to discuss it the next day. Focal points could include what helps them feel confident in what information they gather personally? How does that compare with information they gain from sources they interview or research?
  2. Have students make a list of the sources/information they trust and why they trust it. Tell them you will ask them to talk about how they tell what information, as well as news sources, they consider reliable, credible and thorough.
  3. Have students read and be ready to  discuss the three resources summarizing information from Blur, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.

Day 1

Introduce students to the idea of “skeptical knowing” by sharing the Blur links. Discuss the content of the Blur resources. Ask students  to talk about the questions they would use to verify issues they had with sources or stories. Then address their verification procedures. As the discussion continues, give them the Question Checklist to compare with their responses.

Review “skeptical knowing” points from Blur with students.

Give students the “Missouri sheriff’s ‘In God We Trust’ patrol car decals spark church vs. state debate” and ask them, for Day 2, to check out the information and be able to discuss the accuracy and believability of it. How through is the story? Is there enough information to judge completeness and context? What, if anything, do they feel is missing? What might they want to see added? They can also use the Question checklist.

Day 2

Discuss the story and student responses. As students discuss their choices, share with them the “10 questions” article from Poynter.

As a culminating group exercise, have students design ethical guideline(s) concerning “skeptical knowing” of information gathering and sharing as well as procedures students develop that they can apply.

Access instructions and how to use the ethical guidelines-staff manual approaches and a model of what the concept would look like.

The guidelines and procedures will be compiled and added into the staff manual after discussion by student media staffs.

The Question checklist for Day 2 (see handout)
Once students have read the stories, urge them to consider the following questions:

  • What sources are used in the stories? Why should I believe them? What additional sources might add depth, more information? How many sources are used?
  • How would students check the credibility and reliability of sources and information?
  • What level of sourcing are we dealing with: experts, authorities, knowledgables, reactors?
  • Are the reporters asking these sources questions they are qualified to answer reliably? Are the sources speaking within their fields of expertise?
  • Which information and which stories do they consider the most reliable?  Credible? Why?
  • Which the least, and why?
  • Is the information complete, or what information is missing?
  • Is there a clear line between fact and speculation?
  • Does the information in the story have a context? Can the reporter – and the audience – understand the impact of that context?
  • What criteria do they use to determine credibility of information?  Of sources? Is there reputable verification of the information?
  • How important is their understanding of what words used in the stories mean? Are words and facts used in a context that helps understanding?
  • Am ‘I as a journalist’ learning what I need to, and is the audience?
  • What have they learned from this activity they can use to improve their own reporting?
  • How did the “skeptical knowing” process help them look at the stories and understand the newsgathering and sharing, process? Understand sourcing?
  • Which of the stories helped you make sense of the situation? Why?

What questions can students add to the list?

The assignment can be expanded to three days by having students do readings and some work during class, leaving the second day for drafting ethics guidelines and staff manual procedures.

A second option could shorten processing time by giving them Day 1 materials and work to be done outside of class and doing Day 2 in class.


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