Fake News, Real Science: Freelon collaborates with UNC faculty on an innovative, interdisciplinary course on science media literacy.

By Beth Hatcher

How do consumers evaluate the accuracy of scientific information in the media? What factors might influence the media’s framing and construction of narratives around scientific information?

Students learn to ask and find answers to these questions in an innovative interdisciplinary course for freshmen at UNC. “IDST 118: Fake News and Real Science” focuses on science literacy for both creators and consumers of media.

Associate Professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Freelancer He is one of three professors at Carolina who teach the course, which draws students from every discipline.

“Science is becoming increasingly politicized,” says Freelon, who often examines misinformation and misinformation. “It’s important to understand that the media can sometimes write stories differently for partisan purposes.”

Professor, UNC School of Education Troy Sadler and Associate Professor in the Department of Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences Megan Plenge Join Freelon and pool your knowledge to provide deep insight to over 300 students. Freelon, Sadler, and Plenge coordinate to accommodate additional lesson plans as they alternate weeks of lecturing in the classroom.

The class is one of UNC’s Triple I (idea, information, reference) courses. Suggestions are working General Education Curriculum – a set of special courses and experiences for first-year students.

Becoming a smart and savvy media user is important not just for college freshmen, but for people throughout their lives, especially in the sciences, Plenge said. Plenge created IDST 118 in 2019 after seeing students in her other courses struggle to integrate facts from scientific articles with information they learned outside of the classroom.

“Socio-scientific issues like climate change are very relevant to everyday life – the conversation about them affects laws and policies that affect us all,” he said. “However, when it comes to scientific topics, there is a translation from science to the media to the consumer. All these translations cause news consumers to misunderstand important issues.”

To aid in this translation, Freelon teaches students the SIFT method, along with steps to help determine the accuracy and credibility of media content sources and claims. SIFT stands for:

RESEARCH source.
TO FIND better coverage.
LINE with claims, quotes, and media sources.

“The class allows me to learn from other colleagues on campus,” said Sadler, whose research focuses on how students learn to understand complex social and scientific problems.

Isa Mahuli ’26 said her interest in STEM fields and journalism inspired her to take the course. He was also grateful to learn from a team of professors.

“I enjoy having three professors in one class who allow me to study three different disciplines and see how education, journalism, and science can connect to the media we see in the world today,” Mahuli said. The big lesson he learned from the class: how many fake news sites are created on the subject, whose purpose is not to report facts, but to promote a particular point of view.

While the principles of media literacy are consistent, the course is adaptable and can explore topical issues such as COVID-19 and climate change. Regardless of the course topic each semester, the core teachings remain the same: careful discernment and questioning.

“I think it’s important to give students an opportunity to understand complex issues,” Sadler said. “The issues we focus on in this course are extremely important and a source of great debate in our community.”

According to Freelon: “University education is about teaching students to ask questions and think for themselves about issues like science that will affect them throughout their lives – this course helps them do that.”

Post photos by Renata Schmidt ’22.

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