What price ‘news literacy’?

Truth o meter

How can journalists and news organizations contribute to media literacy education – and what are the pitfalls to avoid?


In the wake of growing concerns over ‘fake news’ and disinformation, many media organisations are getting involved in teaching what they call ‘news literacy’. Of course, media educators have been teaching about news for a very long time: there has been interesting work going on in schools since the 1960s and 1970s, although media education has always been about much more than news. There is also a long history of newspapers and broadcasters working in this field. However, the issue seems to have taken on a renewed urgency right now.

BBC School ReportSome of the current initiatives in the UK are relatively new, although others have been running for many years. For example, the BBC has a long-standing involvement through its School Report project, recently re-branded as Young Reporter, in which secondary school students create their own news programmes. It is also running a Reality Check Roadshow, in which journalists visit schools to teach about ‘fake news’; and it produces a range of other resources, including an iReporter game for older children, videos associated with its children’s news show Newsround for 6-11s, and lesson plans for teachers.

Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper has also run events and produced resources for teachers and students in this area for many years. Its latest initiative is NewsWise, a cross-curricular project for children aged 9-11. It aims to teach children ‘how news is made, how to critically navigate news, and how to create their own news reports’. It includes teacher training as well as teaching materials and workshops in schools.

Similar, smaller initiatives are run by The Economist and The Times newspapers. Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News has also worked in this area for many years, producing teaching materials for use in schools; although its current activities focus primarily on organized trips to its studios. Meanwhile, both in the UK and globally, big technology companies are also getting involved. The Guardian projects are funded by Google, which also has its own Be Internet Awesome programme; Apple is developing new projects on news literacy in the US and Europe; while Facebook is producing ‘digital literacy’ resources especially aimed at the Asian market.

SkyThese initiatives take many different forms. Some are little more than tips and hints for children on ‘spotting’ fake news: for example, the BBC has checklists and a quiz on its Newsround site. Such activities tend to use rather trivial or obvious examples, and present the issue in very simple terms – as a matter of making either/or distinctions between true and false. However, some of the materials do begin to address much broader issues to do with bias, objectivity, fairness and the ethics of news journalism. While the term ‘fake news’ is now well beyond its sell-by date, it can provide a way in to engaging with these more complex issues, as I’ve argued in earlier blogs here and here.

This material is designed to be used by teachers in a variety of contexts, for example in English, citizenship and PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) lessons: it’s less useful for specialist Media Studies teachers at the top end of the secondary school. And there are predictable limitations. The projects tend to focus primarily on the production of news; and as I’ve said, many of them involve journalists working directly with young people, explaining how they work. Beyond the basics of ‘spotting fake news’, critical analysis of news seems to be regarded as a matter for older students – as, for example, in the BBC’s ‘Evidence Toolkit’, aimed at 16-18-year olds. Unsurprisingly, there is very little consideration of the economic and business dimensions of news (for example, the ownership and control of media companies, or how social media make money), which are a key concern for media educators.

Recognising fake newsWhile there might appear to be a plethora of material available, there are many overlaps and gaps in the coverage. Funding also seems to be rather intermittent. If this is indeed a growing sector, it would be good to see a more coherent, joined-up approach, and some independent evaluation. In principle, the newly formed News Literacy Network should help with this – although media educators don’t seem to be represented there.

On the face of it, there is much to welcome here. Media companies are sharing their expertise and giving access to their resources, almost always for free. If this is supported by good-quality materials and professional development for teachers, it’s hard to see what’s not to like. However, some critics would see these initiatives as akin to fast food companies teaching children about nutrition, or oil giants teaching about the environment. Indeed, there is a long history of companies using schools as venues for corporate propaganda, under the guise of ‘giving something back’.

Personally, I think we need to take a pragmatic approach, but it’s important to be sceptical as well. The line between educational activity and public relations can become very blurred. Even for non-profit organisations like the BBC and the Guardian Foundation, the motivation for this activity is partly to do with branding. Meanwhile, for companies like Google and Facebook, funding such activities is merely a drop in the ocean of their enormous profits, and perhaps an easy way of deflecting public (and political) concern about their activities.

Media companies definitely need better public relations right now. In general, it seems that people place relatively little trust in media, although the evidence here is hard to interpret. Audiences and profit margins for traditional media companies (newspapers and broadcasters) are certainly in steep decline. In this situation, companies are bound to take rearguard action to restore trust in their brands. For example, both the Guardian and the BBC have come under sustained and well-documented criticism for political bias, not least in their coverage of the current leadership of the Labour Party – although the BBC is also routinely attacked from the political right as well. Some in traditional media would like to blame social media for the problem of ‘fake news’, as if it’s nothing to do with them.

Evaporation of trustHowever, I’m not sure that restoring trust in particular brands – or indeed rebuilding audiences – is a legitimate aim for education. It would be a problem if education in ‘news literacy’ were simply a way for traditional media to put across a message of ‘don’t trust them, trust us’. On the contrary, the aim should surely be to enable young people to work out in their own terms who to trust and why. The aim should be about critical thinking, not restoring trust. Some of the projects I’ve mentioned do seem to be doing this, but there is undoubtedly a fine line to tread.

How effective are such projects? As ever, it depends on what we’re measuring, and how. Much of this work is quite short term: journalists may be parachuted in for a one-hour lesson, or children given a two-hour practical workshop. But it’s rare to find sustained projects that last over several weeks, or are properly embedded in the curriculum. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the companies. Schools may regard such activities as a distraction from ‘real’ learning, or merely as icing on the cake. However, companies may also have a public relations imperative that leads them to favour breadth rather than depth – and hence to boast about the numbers of students they have reached. In this context, providing in-depth professional development for teachers may be much less attractive.

lifeblood-of-democracy-learning-about-broadcast-news-this-rMore than ten years ago, Cary Bazalgette of the British Film Institute produced a detailed evaluation of the BBC’s School Report project. Her study was conducted in association with the National Foundation for Educational Research, and funded by the media regulator Ofcom. Like a good deal of educational research, the analysis was based on a few in-depth case studies, but it drew attention to some serious limitations. Most importantly, it argued that students’ ‘learning outcomes were strongest in relation to some news production processes and weakest in relation to critical skills and understanding’ – in other words, media literacy.

This points to the limitations of a production-based approach, but also perhaps of projects that are led by journalists and news providers. Teachers need to play a greater role, not least in providing a critical framework; and they need to ensure that this kind of work is embedded in the curriculum over the longer term, rather than a one-off opportunity. And if they’re going to do that, of course they need proper training.

To say the least, this evaluation was not well received by the BBC; but there remains a need for independent evaluation of these kinds of projects – especially, in my view, about the extent to which they make any difference to how students engage with news outside the school context.

So how should media educators respond to this growing involvement on the part of media organizations? This is a contested issue, and it’s likely to become more so in light of the growing privatization of public education. In the United States, there has been a long-standing rift between two rival national media literacy organizations, NAMLE (National Association for Media Literacy Education) and ACME (Action Coalition for Media Education), partly about this very issue of taking money from commercial companies.

Truth o meterSome argue that it’s important for educators to be involved in the conversation, and to take the opportunities that arise. Some argue that, in the absence of any more systematic approach to media education for the majority of students, almost anything is better than nothing. However, others feel that working with media companies is bound to be too compromising and is likely to undermine our independence.

I’m inclined to be pragmatic, but this means that we need to evaluate individual instances very carefully. The value of this work depends on the kind of collaboration or involvement teachers are being invited into. How equal is the partnership? How good are the materials, and what kinds of support and training are on offer? Above all, what are the opportunities here for teaching critical media literacy? If education is just a fig-leaf for corporate public relations, then in my view it’s definitely worth avoiding.