The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Charlie Roden

Fake news and media bias: teaching pupils to think critically

Children and young people need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to think critically about everything they read online. Charlie Roden looks at examples of fake news, and how we can teach pupils to make their own informed judgements.

The Collins Dictionary defines fake news as 'false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.'

It includes stories or hoaxes that are produced to deliberately misinform readers. These stories are created to:

  • influence people's views
  • push an agenda for political gain
  • reap revenue from false advertising.

Types of fake news

One of the most famous examples of fake news is the 'Pizzagate' scandal that went viral during the 2016 US presidential elections. However, the term fake news doesn't just apply to completely made up stories. 

False headlines

False headlines, sometimes known as 'clickbait', are headlines that state something as fact, however the article itself is either inaccurate or grossly exaggerated. These headlines are used to grab readers attention and increase advertising revenue.

Badly reported or overly biased news

Instead of reporting news in an objective way, badly reported news occurs when an author has not necessarily made something up, but has only investigated what was needed to suit an agenda, excluding facts that oppose their own views. 

A lot of badly reported news tend to mislead readers to promote a politicial cause. 

Lies spread faster than the truth

Fake news is not a new phenomenon, however the rise of social media in recent years has enabled it to thrive and spread across the globe on an unprecedented scale – even more so than trustworthy news.

According to a 2018 Twitter investigation, false news spreads at a much faster rate.

Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. (American Association for the Advancement of Science)

An online 'echo chamber'

Social media also discourages us from seeing news stories from a different perspective. Because of our personalised searches, seach engines and social media streams create an 'echo chamber', whereby readers are only shown content that reinforces their own views, preventing them from being challenged to think differently or critically. 

Given that 66% of British adults access news through the internet, and nearly half get their news from social media, many of us are actually living in an online 'filter bubble'. 

Children and young people

  • Only 2% of children and young people are equipped with the skills needed to tell whether a news story is false.
  • Half of children are worried about not being able to identify fake news.
  • Almost half of 12 to 15-year-olds rely on social media to access news.
  • Over 60% of teachers feel that fake news has a harmful effect on children's wellbeing.
  • Over half of teachers believe that the curriculum does not provide pupils with the literacy skills needed to spot fake news.

(Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy in Schools, 2018)

Despite critical literacy being part of the curriculum, schools need to do more to ensure children and young people are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to move beyond passively accepting something that they read, by questioning, examining and disputing it. These skills can be built into all lessons, from science to PSHE and history.

Thinking critically activity: questions to consider

Provide pupils with a range of trustworthy and fake news stories. These can be from more reputable sources such as the BBC or Reuters, overly biased left-wing and right-wing newspapers and outright fake news.

Using these five strategies below, have pupils sort out these stories into three categories: trustworthy, too biased and fake.

1) Analyse the headline

  • Is the author using sensational language?
  • Does the claim sound realistic?
  • Does the headline match the actual story?

2) Question the author's intention

  • Why do you think the author has chosen to write about this story?
  • Do you think the author is trying to change your opinion?

3) Look at the viewpoints being represented

  • Whose voices are heard? 
  • Who do we not hear from?
  • Why would people have opposing viewpoints?

4) Challenge stereotypes

  • Have judgements been made about a specific group of people or culture? 
  • What makes you think judgements are being made?
  • Are these people being misrepresented?

5) Check other sources

  • What are other news sites or factcheckers saying about the same story?
  • Are they using similar language?

What else can reinforce critical thinking?

  • Hold discussions in class about stories that have been told in the news or spread on social media, evaluating the reliability of their sources.
  • Split pupils into groups by giving them print outs of one news story, told by different sources. Ask pupils to present the story to the rest of the class to see how similarly or differently each story is told.
  • Provide pupils with a collection of definitions for the 'Misinformation Age' to further help them think carefully about what they read online.

Download the thinking critically activity: questions to consider

Final words

There is no getting away from the fact that we are always going to be faced with some form of bias in the media.

What children and young people need is the skills and confidence to make their own informed judgements about what they see in the online world.

Our Supporting Pupil Personal Development conference takes place in London on Thursday 28 November. This event will provide you with practical strategies to help develop pupils' character, values and skills to ensure they become independent, active and responsible adults.

Secure your place.

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