We must guide children through the fake-news quagmire

In an age when we are confronted with lies and fake news, children need critical-thinking skills, writes Ann Mroz

We need to guide children through fake news

At the age of 8, I was asked what I wanted for Christmas. A typewriter or nothing, I replied.

I got nothing.

A tough lesson to learn but one that did not diminish that burning desire for a typewriter of my own.

That wonderful tip-tap of the keys was irresistible. My destiny was sealed: I would go on to fight the good fight to bring the truth to the masses and become a journalist.

This week – many, many years later – I was on a panel at the Girls’ Schools Association conference discussing fake news and how to guide children through the quagmire.

With an election fast approaching, the landscape that confronts children is a strange one. It is one in which politicians lie brazenly and shamelessly (I know politicians have always been economical with the actualité but they have never been this bold) and we are asking young people to try to ascertain the truth in what they read, watch and see all around them. It’s an unenviable undertaking when many adults can’t seem to manage it.

A report published last year by the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills, run jointly by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy and the National Literacy Trust, said only 2 per cent of children and young people could tell if a news story was real or fake. And more than half of teachers felt the national curriculum was failing to develop the literacy skills needed to do so. Lots of examination of prepositions but less of propositions; plenty of nouns but sadly not enough nous.

The report called for the government to make critical literacy skills – such as challenging what one reads, thinking about the source and knowing the difference between fact and opinion – much more explicit in assessments at the end of primary and secondary. Although it was interesting that primary pupils were twice as likely to spot a fake news story as those in secondary.

More citizenship education, philosophy and that most derided of subjects, media studies, would all help. As would studying history: as someone at the conference pointed out, fake news has always been with us – it was called propaganda – but now it is amplified hugely by social media, ensuring a swift distribution.

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on? Today’s truth hasn’t even managed to get out of bed.

But what in the meantime? These young people are our future voters. They need to be able to navigate through this forest of fibs.

And it’s a particularly bleak outlook for girls if they are looking for inspiration from politics. A large number of female MPs have stood down prior to this election, not through retirement but because of the toxic discourse and vile insults that women have to endure disproportionately in politics and in public life. If we were hoping an increased female presence in the Commons might raise the tone, we were disappointed. They were just crushed by a juggernaut of abuse.

In that same commission report, half of the children surveyed said they were worried about not being able to spot fake news, and two-thirds of teachers said that they believed fake news was harming children’s wellbeing and increasing their anxiety levels.

News events have always been worrying for children – often hard to comprehend and out of their control. This is something different. It’s complex and it’s ugly. When it comes to politics, we can blame an ever-diminishing media for not challenging deceit. Or we can do something by demanding better from the people in power and those aspiring to power.

So this year for Christmas, I want politicians who will tell the truth or nothing.

I fear I’ll be getting nothing again.

@AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 22 November 2019 issue under the headline “More of the same truth-dodging politics? Nothing would be better"