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Tools of Truth: all lessons


All Tools of Truth lessons are listed, annotated here

Sloppy reporting

The first lesson explores ethical decision-making about what to publish and the importance of verification in that process. It is a case study that puts students in the role of an editor as they walk through a hypothetical story pitch and consequences of publishing an unverified story. The activity ends with a class reflection about best practices for verification and accountability. This lesson works best after teachers have already discussed how their schools are affected by state and federal laws (see SPLC First Amendment rights diagram) so students are familiar with their First Amendment rights as student journalists.

• The second lesson builds on the activity from the day before by discussing the purpose of skepticism during the reporting process by looking at a real-life situation where a professional journalist was duped. It also examines the balance between healthy skepticism and unhealthy cynicism.

• What happens when a journalist gets it wrong?

Inaccurate reporting is not the same as fake news, but it can carry the same consequence. What are the forces at play which compel journalists to strive for accuracy? How do media organizations stay accountable for the work of their journalists? What happens when a journalist makes a mistake, and what happens when a media outlet loses the trust of their audience and/or advertisers.

Why, and how, can two people be exposed to the exact same news story and interpret it differently? Why should this matter to journalists? People interpret the news differently depending on their cognitive schematic structure, or prior experiences. It’s important for journalists to understand this process so they can better understand how their audiences are interpreting the content they produce, and so they can ultimately use that information to help shape their content.

Fake news may just be incomplete news if it doesn’t provide the audience with enough context to really tell the story. That can happen with alternative story forms if they just add visuals and fluff but little real information. As The Poynter Institute’s Vicki Krueger describes them, these are “charticles, non-narratives, storytelling devices, ASFs and alts, among others. Some stand alone as a story, and some are supplemental: forms that clarify, complement and explain information in a traditional news story.” In her 10 ways to engage readers with alternative story forms, she offers guidelines for their use. However, a staff’s first decision is when and why to use them. Note that these are to CLARIFY and EXPLAIN INFORMATION to avoid misinforming the audience. While alternative story forms can add visual variety, their main purpose is to accurately convey information.

Critics accuse the news media of only reporting bad news, but journalists must investigate and report on problems. One alternative to reporting solely on the problem is to report on how people and communities are seeking to solve those problems. This form of investigative journalism is called “solutions journalism.” This lesson provides an introduction to solutions journalism and encourages student reporters to generate ideas about how they could use this approach in their own reporting.

The community gets information about what is happening at school through different publications, but not all of these publications are journalistic. In this lesson, students will differentiate between student reporting and school public relations by comparing and contrasting student publications with school public relations content such as newsletters, school-created magazines or school websites created and maintained by adults in the community.

Deceptive news

Interpretation, framing and sourcing

Why, and how, can two people be exposed to the exact same news story and interpret it differently? Why should this matter to journalists? People interpret the news differently depending on their cognitive schematic structure, or prior experiences. It’s important for journalists to understand this process so they can better understand how their audiences are interpreting the content they produce, so they can ultimately use that information to help shape their content

Journalists are taught to be objective, so they don’t “frame” stories” … or do they? Whether consciously or unconsciously, research suggests time and time again that what the media decides to cover, and how they cover it, ultimately influences what people find important and how they interpret the news. So it’s important for journalists to consider their story angle, word choice and even interview questions to be sure they don’t rely on social stereotypes, which could potentially be inaccurate, to tell their stories.

In the 21st century, we choose the media sources we consume in an increasingly passive manner. Stories show up in our news feeds and social media feeds, or in forwarded emails; often we don’t know the sources, or the sources look familiar, but they are from nefarious sources. Explore the changing nature of how we consume news, and help your students choose their information wisely.

Deceptive advertising

Questions of fake news and disinformation arise almost daily. Citizens also face information spread by sponsored content, an approach to storytelling designed to bring needed revenue to news media. The trouble is most readers and viewers cannot tell sponsored news from reported news. This lesson can help students understand how sponsored news developed, how to recognize it and ways to assist non-journalism communities in dealing with it.

Because of the rapid spread of sponsored content or native advertising, it is possible your students will have to decide whether to use them in their student media. Faced with that decision, what arguments would students raise and what decisions would they make – and why?

Because of the rapid spread of sponsored content, students may have to decide whether to accept sponsored content in their student media. How well can they recognize it and what would they do once they recognize it?

From previous lessons, student journalists should be aware of native ads and sponsored content and the importance of understanding the issues they raise. Now, they take this awareness and knowledge a step further and become the teachers to their various communities. They can use the positions they reported in the last lesson and inform others.

In this lesson, the teacher will lead students to create a Pinterest board that identifies native ads and sponsored content since it always helps to visually explain journalism terminology.

This lesson should follow other lessons on sponsored content. To help maintain student awareness of native ads and sponsored content, students will create Storify news stories and publish them to keep themselves and their communities aware of each.

Identification of Fake News

There has been a lot of talk lately about “fake news” because it has been particularly prevalent during the recent 2016 Presidential election campaign. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 62 percent of Americans get their news from social media sites and 44 percent get their news specifically from Facebook. Nearly 90 percent of millennials regularly get news from Facebook. In addition, a recent study from Stanford University revealed that many teens have difficulty analyzing the news; 82 percent of middle school students surveyed couldn’t tell the difference between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a legitimate news story.

This lesson provides an opportunity for students to learn what fake news is, differentiate it from other types of news (including satirical, misleading and tabloid news), develop strategies for spotting fake news and consider what can be done about the proliferation of fake news.

Following the How to Spot Fake News lesson or Satire’s role in Current Events lesson (or perhaps even on its own or before the lesson), urge students to download the Jeopardy-style game to see how they really do in identifying fake news.

In this lesson, students explore propaganda techniques, and discuss how they are the targets of advertisers and politicians. Students will understand and identify how propaganda techniques are used to influence them into doing, feeling and believing a message that may or may not be of benefit to them. Students will create their own propaganda message using one (or more) of 11 known propaganda techniques. The key is to help students begin an awareness of, and the ability to identify, how their outlook on life is related to the messages they see. This lesson takes one 60-minute class period to complete.

In this lesson, students pick up where they left off in propaganda techniques as well as the concept of “spin” and discuss how politicians use these techniques to sway public opinion. Students will identify propaganda used in past and current ads and create their own advertisement using an assigned propaganda technique. Students will also examine how politicians spin current events to suit their own agendas and will assume the role of a prominent political figure’s communication representative who is responsible for spinning news events.


In this noncontinuous lesson, students will localize the 2016 Gallup survey “Free Expression on Campus: A Survey of U.S. College Students and U.S. Adults.”  Students will use their technical writing skills to craft the directions (teachers and students), questions similar to the Gallup questions, and an email in addition to tabulating and comparing the survey results. Students will then compare their results with the national results, create an infographic and then write a reflection of the process.

The lesson starts by providing a prompt in which students examine what they would like to cover, but feel they can’t for some reason. Discussion addresses why this self-censorship exists and examines whether this self-censorship should be abandoned.

Students and the public have a right to view many records kept by schools, municipalities,  states and federal government. Students should review how to submit a public records request and understand the legal aspects of doing so.The Student Press Law Center also hosts an open records letter generator to make it easy to do. Most often, the Freedom of Information Act request will come at a time when you might be crunched for time. Use this lesson to become more familiar with your rights under the Freedom of Information Act.


Satire is hard

Students are funny. Students are smart. But are they smart enough to be funny with satire in a way that advances the journalistic goals of the publication? Can they do it without violating the SPJ ethical guidelines or their own publications’ ethical guidelines? Use this lesson to help students understand purpose of satire as a journalistic tool.

Satire in your publications; who is the joke really on?

Students think of themselves as smart and funny, but does that mean they can handle satire? Satire opens students up to many legal risks including libel and invasion of privacy. Use this activity to explore some of the pitfalls of using satire in your publications.

• Satire’s role in current events

According to Wyatt Mason in an online article published in the New York Times Magazine titled “My Satirical Self,” readers in the 21st century have “taken shelter in the ridiculous.” He provides an excerpt from The Onion, a satirical online news source referenced as “America’s Finest News Source,” as an example of an escape from the inescapable ridiculousness of society, politics, and other vice and follies. New literacies have helped grow the genre of satire, and as Americans turn to this genre as a source for news and entertainment, students must understand the core elements that create satire.




Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE

John Bowen, MJE

Maggie Cogar, CJE

Michael Johnson

Lori Keekley, MJE

Jeff Kocur, CJE

Kristin Taylor, CJE


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