How to Help Dispel Fake News in the COVID-19 Era

Hannah Dismuke

Hannah Dismuke RT(R) is a second year high school science teacher at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts. She graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in Radiologic Science, and she shapes her teaching practice her background in medicine. In her free time she enjoys kick-boxing, crochet and washing her hands.


Earlier this week, a student asked me if the COVID-19 outbreak started because someone ate a live bat. Another asked if the government was going to lock him in his house against his will. Yet another asked if we were just over-reacting since the virus wasn’t any worse than a bad cold or the flu.

Before I gave my answer, I made a point of asking where they had heard that particular piece of information, knowing full well that the answer was, “The Internet.”

Media literacy is not new but teaching students how to identify sensational and fake news takes on a whole new level of importance in times like these. Misinformation can cause anxiety and panic. It can lead to discrimination. And it can cloud people’s judgement, preventing them from getting the medical help they need.

It’s our job as educators to protect our students from bad information. This is going to be especially critical as schools around the country continue to close down and implement remote learning. Students are going to be tethered to the Internet for eight hours a day, making it easier for them to disappear down rabbit holes filled with bad information and conspiracy websites. Teaching them how to identify reputable sources and consume media responsibly will be critical to their well-being and social and public health.

Here are five things I’m keeping in mind as we enter this unprecedented era:

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Say ‘I Don’t Know’

I know, this is a tough one, but it’s important that students understand that everything right now doesn’t have an answer. Things are changing day by day, hour by hour. It’s ok to admit that you don’t know everything. Seeing that even their teacher is in the dark on some questions will help spark curiosity to do research on their own and keep up to date on the latest developments. The last thing you want to do is pass along your best guess as fact. That would erode trust at a time when following directions could have life or death consequences.

2. Dispel Myths Gently

At the same time, you want to put the kibosh on obviously untrue or harmful information. Every rumor starts with a kernel of truth, and you don’t want to ridicule or discourage students from asking questions—no matter how silly.

3. Tie Latest News and Updates to Regular Lessons

I teach high school biology, so this is a little easier for me than, say, a humanities teacher. The other day, we were discussing DNA, and I was able to introduce how viruses are constructed and how they affect people differently based on genetics. I could see a few light bulbs go off, and I think the lessons stuck a bit more because the students could relate to the subject, put it into context and personalize it.

4. Share Reputable Sources

Students are already pretty good about media literacy, which is a critical 21st Century skill across the curriculum. They’ve grown up in a world where it’s an important survival skill. But sometimes things sneak by. Fortunately, I have some tools to help. Newsela is a great resource that curates content from the most trusted names in publishing, makes them accessible to multiple reading levels then allows me to share the content with students from within Newsela, with Google Classroom or another LMS, or share a link using any other communication channels I have with my students. Students can search and access lists of relevant articles from reputable sources. This is important if you consider that the top questions asked on Newsela by U.S. students about COVID-19 include “What does a credible source look like? Who should I be trusting?” “Should we avoid Chinese-run businesses?” “Can only students of color contract coronavirus?” and “Should I be wearing a mask to protect myself?” It’s heartening considering that the top stories read by students include articles from the Associated Press, History.com, Science News, Smithsonian.com and PBS NewsHour.

5. Don’t Be a Part of the Problem

This one is personal. We all have a responsibility to act appropriately in times of crisis—students included. Self quarantine, practice social distancing, wash your hands and sneeze into a tissue or sleeve. You may not be in a high-risk population, but you likely have contact with people who are. Grandparents, young siblings, parents who work in the healthcare industry—they are all a part of our daily lives, and it’s important that we all chip in and do what is expected of us. It’s part of being a part of a community—and that is the most important lesson we can impart on our students.

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