Navigating the Misinformation Age: How to verify sources before making conclusions

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The following editorial was originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday, March 3, 2019 as part of the "Raise Your Hand" column in the Insights section.

By: Keona Blanks, James Campbell High School, Class of 2019

Picture this: a smiling Catholic high school student and his classmates donning MAGA hats. They’re standing in front of a chanting Native American elder. Sounds like a moment that could be interpreted in many ways, right? Well, it wasn’t. It was hardly interpreted in one, and that interpretation called for the boys’ heads.

On January 18th, a Twitter account with more than 40,000 followers posted a minute-long video showing this interaction. The caption read, “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March”—without further context. The video, garnering over 14,000 retweets and 2.5 million views, sparked a political uproar.

In a perfect world, the thousands who retweeted the image would have investigated its context before doing so, because they’d have learned to. Unfortunately, ours is a world of concluding minds over inquiring minds.

However, it shouldn’t be so; information literacy is a national standard for higher learning set by the American Library Association. The information literate individual has the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the desired information. “When you visit the library in elementary school, you’re taught which sources are good and bad and why that might be so; but a lot of that gets disregarded nowadays because the information is so quick and easy to access,” said James Campbell High School history teacher John Santiago.

To avoid another MAGA Catholic student misconstruation, don’t believe everything you read. Be skeptical. Santiago said, “Say that I hear something once on a news site or I catch it on Twitter, I’ll be like ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Might not be true. Let me go verify by checking other sites.’ Reading articles or watching videos from trusted news sources like CNN is my go-to. I always check out CNN or local news sources like Hawaii News Now or KITV. I also look at FOX News or BBC News sometimes just to get a different opinion or different perspective.”

In 2016, the Stanford History Education Group released a study sampling over 7,000 middle school, high school, and college students. When asked to evaluate online information, the students based their evaluation on a site’s look and feel, things a website creator could easily manipulate. When determining the legitimacy of a source, avoid lending validity to superficial factors like web page design and instead focus on their quality, evidence, footnotes, and content. Even verified evidence still requires investigation beyond surface-level analysis. “With statistics, if you see a number but don’t understand how people got that number, those numbers could be meaningless or mean something totally different. It’s good to have cameras and evidence; but when there’s no context, deeper analysis, or explanation, it can be dangerous,” Santiago said.

Thus, the question still remains, why are we information illiterate outside of the classroom? Defined as confirmation bias, this cherry-picking of information can lead to statistical errors and sweep vital evidence under the rug. We already know that social media can result in echo chambers supporting one’s point of view. As companies and website continue to work towards rectifying the issue, conclusions must be made based on the evidence at hand, rather than finding evidence that supports a preconceived conclusion.

In 1998, when journalist Stephen Glass was exposed for his unverifiable story “Hack Heaven” in addition to partial or full fabrication for 27 of his 41 stories, the public came to know full well that trusting a single source is risky. News can easily be fabricated. Have we since forgotten? In the end, it is the role of the consumer to digest information comprehensively and carefully.

Cost Is Daunting, But College Is Worth It

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The following editorial was originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday, January 6, 2019 as part of the "Raise Your Hand" column in the Insights section.

By: Jett Kaler, McKinley High School, Class of 2019

The reality that most high school seniors are faced with are life determining questions: Is college worth it? What kind of job will I have in ten years if I go to college or if I don’t? We have to answer these questions for ourselves depending on our own interests and future wants.

For most people, college is the natural progression, but for some, college is the more difficult choice. Only 70% of high school graduates go on to college, and only 58% receive their diploma. Students in the United States are $1.5 trillion dollars in debt from college tuition. On average, it takes 21 years for an individual to pay back student loans. Most won’t be finished paying for college until after their 40th birthday.

Although it's easier to stay within support systems and comfort zones, forego the debt, and get on to making money, it is important that every student in America receive the best education and obtain the many values that going to college has to offer.

College is the best way to discover things that we’re truly passionate about and to secure the financial and career benefits that can only be gained through a college experience. There are approximately 20 million college students at 5,300 different schools in the United States. With over 1,800 majors, undergraduates have almost limitless opportunity.

Discover things we’re passionate about. Compared to universities, students in high school have very limited academic opportunities. Most of us can’t even imagine the areas of study that are available as we complete our core competency classes and move on to electives. These discoveries allow us to fulfill who we want to become. For example, one third of college students working for their bachelor degrees change their major at least once. If you think about it, that’s not a negative statistic - it’s evidence that students are encountering new fields of study, learning about their strengths and acting on the opportunities discovered.

Many financial and career benefits. On average, college graduates make $1 million more than non-graduates over their lifetime. That’s 56% more in your yearly paycheck. Keep it simple: If you can make $40,000 without a degree, that seems pretty good to an 18 year old. When you get out of college assuming the 56% average puts you over $62,000 - a difference of $1,000/month. Students can research majors by anticipated starting salaries and improve their chances of starting salaries of well over $62,000. In 2016, Business Insider listed 25 majors starting salaries over $62,000. The most profitable were Petroleum Engineering, Physician Assistant, Computer Science and Mining Engineering, with top starting salaries all over $70,000 and median mid-career pay over $103,000. Student loan repayment may be heavy, but the amount you’d earn in the long run has proven to be significantly greater. The future of Hawaii depends on our financial success and going to college is the best way to achieve that.

There are resources designed to help us succeed. Programs like the Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders that have classes and conferences to help students develop and become part of the solution, to keep changing the paradigm.

Although the upfront costs of college are daunting, If we apply ourselves and study a major that has the potential for a top starting salary, then all students can have some assurance that the investment is worth it.