News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

“Just think how different kids’ engagement with the news and society would be if we started including clear guides with our stories discussing things like: Why is this news and how did we decide that? Why did we choose to speak to these people?”

Rarely a week goes by without having to explain to my 70-something-year-old parents why the WhatsApp story they forwarded isn’t true. “It doesn’t matter that your super-smart, highly educated friend sent it to you,” I tell them time and again. Then I walk them through distinguishing a legitimate news story from a random forward, and the basics of sourcing.

On the other end of the spectrum, I often do the same for my 10-year-old daughter. Her interests skew more BlackPink and Justin Bieber than politics, but the news literacy issues are the same.

While running these familial fact-checking interventions, I’ve come to realize that news organizations are missing an opportunity to provide accessible news literacy guides to the biggest stories of the day — particularly those geared towards children.

As journalists, most of us firmly believe that a free press is the bedrock of democracy. How better to serve democracy than by educating the voters of tomorrow to be savvy news consumers?

News literacy isn’t a particularly novel idea, but what’s been missing thus far is the commitment to make it a core part of journalism. Rather than outsourcing efforts to a smattering of nonprofits, it’s time for newsrooms to own that responsibility, and I think we will begin to do that in 2021.

All of us who work in news have been wringing our hands about dis- and misinformation and fact-checking at scale. Even tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, with nearly unlimited checkbooks, struggle to find adequate solutions. And with the impending rise of deepfaked audio and videos, there’s very little any one news outlet or company will be able to do to counter that type of disinformation.

A far more practical solution to our information woes would be arming our youngest readers and viewers with an arsenal of tools to make sense of all the information coming at them.

Teaching children (and other news consumers) to be active rather than passive recipients could also help pierce the information bubbles we live in. Just think how different kids’ engagement with the news and society would be if we started including clear guides with our stories discussing things like: Why is this news and how did we decide that? Why did we choose to speak to these people? Who is most affected? Why does this issue matter? What’s the historical context?

We should move beyond mere editorial transparency and offer a few questions for them to ponder: What do the people involved want me to think about this issue and why? Who created this story, and do they have an agenda? How does this compare to how others are talking about this issue? These critical thinking skills, if they’re made a core part of the news experience, could shift how the next generation interacts with and processes information. And these companion guides could be built for a variety of stories, not just highbrow news.

Parents and families could use them as conversation starters and let their children lead the discussion. I’m old enough to have grown up watching the nightly news with my parents, which provided a platform from which I could start to understand world events and my parents’ perspectives.

Another natural channel to reach children is via school curricula. Journalists should collaborate with teachers to make sure the guides would be impactful for all children.

Research shows that news literacy efforts are most effective when practiced over time. So imagine the lifelong impact on children who start learning these skills in elementary schools and strengthen that muscle over time through conversations with their teachers, families, and peers. These sophisticated consumers could force platforms like Google and Facebook (and their successors) to be far more transparent than they are today.

This seems like a ripe area to apply artificial intelligence. If we can use AI to create, produce, and distribute stories, then surely we can automate some of the work required for these types of guides and tools, whether they be graphic comic strips, web extras, or something else.

Think back to the impact of television news and the widespread media adoption of user-generated videos. They allowed viewers to feel like they were at the scene, experiencing what was happening, and that change dramatically shifted people’s understanding. In the same way, parting the editorial curtains even further and offering children a roadmap to critically examine the content they are consuming could help create a populace less susceptible to manipulation.

Rarely a week goes by without having to explain to my 70-something-year-old parents why the WhatsApp story they forwarded isn’t true. “It doesn’t matter that your super-smart, highly educated friend sent it to you,” I tell them time and again. Then I walk them through distinguishing a legitimate news story from a random forward, and the basics of sourcing.

On the other end of the spectrum, I often do the same for my 10-year-old daughter. Her interests skew more BlackPink and Justin Bieber than politics, but the news literacy issues are the same.

While running these familial fact-checking interventions, I’ve come to realize that news organizations are missing an opportunity to provide accessible news literacy guides to the biggest stories of the day — particularly those geared towards children.

As journalists, most of us firmly believe that a free press is the bedrock of democracy. How better to serve democracy than by educating the voters of tomorrow to be savvy news consumers?

News literacy isn’t a particularly novel idea, but what’s been missing thus far is the commitment to make it a core part of journalism. Rather than outsourcing efforts to a smattering of nonprofits, it’s time for newsrooms to own that responsibility, and I think we will begin to do that in 2021.

All of us who work in news have been wringing our hands about dis- and misinformation and fact-checking at scale. Even tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, with nearly unlimited checkbooks, struggle to find adequate solutions. And with the impending rise of deepfaked audio and videos, there’s very little any one news outlet or company will be able to do to counter that type of disinformation.

A far more practical solution to our information woes would be arming our youngest readers and viewers with an arsenal of tools to make sense of all the information coming at them.

Teaching children (and other news consumers) to be active rather than passive recipients could also help pierce the information bubbles we live in. Just think how different kids’ engagement with the news and society would be if we started including clear guides with our stories discussing things like: Why is this news and how did we decide that? Why did we choose to speak to these people? Who is most affected? Why does this issue matter? What’s the historical context?

We should move beyond mere editorial transparency and offer a few questions for them to ponder: What do the people involved want me to think about this issue and why? Who created this story, and do they have an agenda? How does this compare to how others are talking about this issue? These critical thinking skills, if they’re made a core part of the news experience, could shift how the next generation interacts with and processes information. And these companion guides could be built for a variety of stories, not just highbrow news.

Parents and families could use them as conversation starters and let their children lead the discussion. I’m old enough to have grown up watching the nightly news with my parents, which provided a platform from which I could start to understand world events and my parents’ perspectives.

Another natural channel to reach children is via school curricula. Journalists should collaborate with teachers to make sure the guides would be impactful for all children.

Research shows that news literacy efforts are most effective when practiced over time. So imagine the lifelong impact on children who start learning these skills in elementary schools and strengthen that muscle over time through conversations with their teachers, families, and peers. These sophisticated consumers could force platforms like Google and Facebook (and their successors) to be far more transparent than they are today.

This seems like a ripe area to apply artificial intelligence. If we can use AI to create, produce, and distribute stories, then surely we can automate some of the work required for these types of guides and tools, whether they be graphic comic strips, web extras, or something else.

Think back to the impact of television news and the widespread media adoption of user-generated videos. They allowed viewers to feel like they were at the scene, experiencing what was happening, and that change dramatically shifted people’s understanding. In the same way, parting the editorial curtains even further and offering children a roadmap to critically examine the content they are consuming could help create a populace less susceptible to manipulation.

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