Richard Hornik, director of overseas partnership programs at Stony Brook...

Richard Hornik, director of overseas partnership programs at Stony Brook University's Center for News Literacy, is one of the chief content officers for a new online course on news literacy. Credit: Wasim Ahmad via Stony Brook University

With fake news and what to do about it now a subject for headlines, Stony Brook University next month is launching a free online course to help students and the public better learn how to spot those lies.

The six-week course, organizers say, is aimed at helping participants tell the difference between information and sources that are trustworthy and those that are not; what’s fair and what’s biased; and how journalism differs from other kinds of information, such as advertising and propaganda.

The session, which begins Jan. 9 and has been in the works since early last year, “could not come at a more important time,” said Howard Schneider, dean of Stony Brook’s School of Journalism.

Fake news was seen as a factor in the months leading up to the recent presidential election. Facebook, in particular, was accused of facilitating its spread, leading the social media site to begin measures aimed at curbing false news.

The online class, “Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens,” is produced by the school’s Center for News Literacy — which for close to a decade has been training Stony Brook students to be savvier news consumers — in partnership with the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

The course, which is being hosted on online learning site Coursera, features videos — subtitled in English, Chinese and Spanish — as well as suggested readings and quizzes. While the course is free, those who opt to pay $49 and do extra work are eligible to walk away with a certificate of completion.

Courses such as this one are able to handle some tens of thousands of registrants, and the hope is for a broader reach beyond students, said Richard Hornik, the Stony Brook center’s director of overseas partnership programs, who also serves as one of the course’s chief content officers.

The course could be an especially good resource for parents who want to monitor and coach their children in how to “consume, create and distribute information responsibly,” said Jennifer Choi, a grantmaker with the philanthropic Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which has provided some funding for the Stony Brook center.

Last month, the Stanford Graduate School of Education, with funding from the McCormick Foundation, issued a report on students’ ability to evaluate information. After analyzing more than 7,800 responses from students in middle school through college, the authors wrote that they found respondents to be “easily duped,” and that “in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.”

Schneider said the longer-term antidote for phony news is to educate children starting about age 12, “when students have not closed their minds.”

Young people may be digital natives, born into a world of the internet, mobile devices and social media — but when it comes to discerning what information is reliable, Schneider said, they “are not born with this” ability.

“All the algorithms, technology and filters in the world won’t totally solve the problem,” Schneider said. “Part of the solution rests with the news consumers themselves.”

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