Last week we had the pleasure of meeting six bright millennials who, to our delight, refused to conform to the worst stereotypes about their generation.
They spent 50 minutes giving insightful, judicious and often thought-provoking answers to our questions about how to distinguish fact from fiction and real news from fake news in an allegedly “post-truth” 21st-century. During our interview none of them touched a cell phone, said “OMG,” or reflected a self-centered, entitled worldview.
These are the cream of the crop, members of the St. Helena High School Academic Decathlon team that won the state championship and finished third in the U.S. under coach Evan Blasingame. We’re relieved to know that in 10 or 20 years, our city’s biggest problems could be tackled by the likes of Tristan Spain, Emma Grace Roberts, Clare Brawdy, Henry Cutting, Alex Smith and Chase Bowman.
Cutting talked about seeking out sources that have already earned your trust, and double-checking their reporting with other credible sources. You can also try to trace back to primary sources, although that’s more difficult on radio and TV, he noted. Another problem is that even some mainstream sources are disseminating bad information these days, he added.
The theme of this year’s Academic Decathlon was World War II, and Cutting observed that politicians then and now use dubious claims to curry favor with supporters.
Chase Bowman talked about looking past the shiny headlines that are intended to draw clicks. Interestingly, he didn’t distinguish between those headlines and the shady ads that promise to help you lose 10 pounds in a week. He’s right — headlines should inform, not just entice.
Emma Grace Roberts is also skeptical of over-the-top web headlines, and when she sees one of them she gets suspicious of the other articles on the same site. She uses fact-checking websites to ferret out the truth behind the claims.
Without using the term, Roberts described the pervasiveness of confirmation bias. Once people buy into a particular narrative they’re inclined to agree with, they tend not to investigate the underlying facts or listen to conflicting accounts.
Tristan Spain noted that same phenomenon. We felt like applauding when he said citizens of a democracy have a responsibility to seek out information that doesn’t gibe with their preconceived notions. Like the other students, he stressed the importance of tracking down primary sources and corroborating facts with multiple news sources.
By gleaning from multiple sources that lean in different directions, we gain a deeper understanding of people with differing perspectives, said Clare Brawdy. Agreeing is optional, but understanding is imperative.
Alex Smith pointed out the need to be mindful of one’s own internal biases. Returning to the World War II theme, he and Bowman noted how Hitler took advantage of a German populace that was yearning for a strong, charismatic leader who would affirm their fears of foreigners, Jews and communists.
When it came to participating in the democratic process, these students didn’t display a trace of apathy or throw-up-their-hands hopelessness. Bowman talked about working to effect change at the local level at first, just to get the ball rolling.
Each of the students have met Rep. Mike Thompson or seen him around campus, and Bowman recalled how two of his classmates voiced their opinions about Internet privacy to Thompson, who later mentioned their concerns in Congress.
By talking to local representatives like Thompson, “you can make your voice heard,” Bowman said. He and other students seemed keenly aware of how decisions made at the state and federal levels, well outside the St. Helena bubble, can have local repercussions.
We’d expected these students to be Internet-savvy, but we were impressed by their sophisticated understanding of the interplay of facts, opinions and the media in the Information Age.
How magnificent it would be if every citizen could receive the level of education these kids have.
If they’re the ones running our city, county or state governments or local businesses in 20 years, we’ll be in excellent hands.