Professor Chris Sperry, right, discusses a chart with a staff member of Project Look Sharp

On screen is a map of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, depicting land ownership in the territory circa 1945. Entitled “Land Ownership in Palestine, 1945,” the map depicts blue lands as Israeli-controlled, green regions–small blips encompassing all regions of the map–as Arab-occupied land.

In front of the map are a dozen or so students and their teacher, Ithaca College professor Christopher Sperry. Sperry introduces the map only by name and, asking students to examine the map carefully, poses a question. “What does this map say about the creation of Israel in 1948?” he asks. After some thought, a student responds.

“It’s not justified,” she says. “It’s not fair.”

This opinion the student put forward, Sperry points out, is an immediate perspective based on facts introduced by the map, that the creation of the new country of Israel, based on the land it would eventually take, could not possibly be justified as a fair action.

What he didn’t immediately mention that the map–a factual, if not objective document–was a document that originated with a pro-Palestine perspective. He switches to an Israeli map, showing the movements of foreign forces prompting their defection to Israel, this time with facts that, while not infactual themselves, depicts a reality different than that in the Palestinian map.

“Are both of these maps wrong?” he asks the class. “They both have facts backing them up.”

What Sperry, a 1979 Graduate of Ithaca College and current teacher at Lehman Alternative Community School, was practicing was a concept called constructivist media decoding, a teaching practice of facilitating conversation to deconstruct messages they’re given, questioning what is true and what is projected. It’s through this approach and method that he, and his associates at Ithaca College’s Project Look Sharp, want to begin attacking the new age issue of fake news, a heavily-biased side effect of the information age many are blaming for a recent wave of populism and polarization worldwide.

The project, founded in 1995 as an answer to the media literacy movement of the advertising era by IC psychology professor Dr. Cyndy Scheibe, seeks to implement media literacy in the classroom by examining not only how we question the world around us but to question the portals into the world we rely on for information, looking at how language is used or how facts are posed to present a slanted point of view. Through more than 20 packets of lesson plans and prompts, Project Look Sharp provides the means of teaching media literacy to students from kindergarten all the way through college simultaneously through their course material, simply by incorporating concepts of critical thinking into teachers’ lesson plans.

Though the project’s aims have always primarily been about changing teaching practices, in today’s media landscape the mission of Project Look Sharp has changed course and emphasis: what we’re seeing in the media today, Sperry says, is a regression to the journalistic practices of a bygone era, where bias was expected and ingrained in the spread of information, where bias was rampant if not expected. The key difference today is that oftentimes, the opposing viewpoint tends to go unheard. 

Right now, corporations own most journalism outlets. But journalism itself and media was founded on the idea of implicit and obvious biases, the early days of media dominated by newspapers owned and operated not by the industrial bosses or speculators dominating the media landscape today, but by political parties. 

“When you got a newspaper–whether the Federalist newspaper, the Whig newspaper, the Democrat or Republican–the readership knew what perspective they were getting,” Sperry said. “In 1840 or 1850, the average male subscribed to four newspapers. That was the only way you could get all points of view.” 

It wasn’t until the 20th century and really, the advent of radio and television that objectivity in journalism came into the equation, a product of a time when far-reaching organizations strove for competitive advantage by producing truer, more substantial content than their competitors and its bias not for a particular ideology, but to eliminate controversy in order to achieve the biggest audience. But today, Sperry argues, we’ve regressed to a scene resembling the party papers of yesteryear with one key difference: no longer do we consume four different perspectives, instead opting for the ideological safe spaces of curated, online experiences like Facebook, Twitter and even news platforms like Flipboard.

“People are stuck in their echo chambers, consuming news that works to reinforce their perspectives,” Sperry said. “The medium has now changed, as McLuhan (a famed media theorist) said… we’re bumping up against that in a pretty crisis way, where our echo chamber reality has put our country in a position where people may actually be thinking Democracy is at risk. Media literacy’s role can be to give educators the capacity, training and materials from pre-k through college to have students integrate into the very basic literacy of science, social studies, whatever, the continual process of asking the questions they need to be asking to be critical thinkers in the 20th century.”

As this relates to ‘fake news,’ Sperry says pointing out content as slanted or false is simply not enough. What we do psychologically as human beings, he said, is take information the information we collect and fit it within the paradigms we already believe: we skew the facts and, unless we help people to recognize that’s what’s occurring, we just look at news as news, never questioning how or why a message was constructed in a particular way. There are some fundamental hurdles to overcoming this, he says: Just giving people information, we now know, isn’t enough. We must, he said, have students actively and rigorously debating diverse perspectives, therefore shifting education from the passive focus on filling students with information.

He also says we as a society should learn to repurpose media, how we use everything from our televisions to our Twitter and Facebook feeds, and the degree to which we consume them, Sperry saying we need to marry our consumption with the strongest habits of critical analysis. Thirdly, he said, focusing on metacognition–the act of thinking about thinking–in our curriculum is important, looking not just at the information we receive but how that information was compiled. 

It’s a very broad, decentralized means of approaching fake news over the long haul. It’s not a quick fix, Sperry said, because Democracy is not a quick fix: it needs to be considered in a deep, thoughtful and productive way to work as it was intended. The schools, he argues, have to be a part of that to build a media literate generation for the next century. It’s not easy, he said, but the effects of these lessons can have an extremely profound effect on those who listen in.

 

 

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