Arming the young against fake news – and more

Journalists and educators around the world continue working urgently to make news literacy and media and information literacy key priorities in helping young people learn how to navigate digital content.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | December 7, 2016

Panellists pictured at the top of the page are (from left) Barbara McCormack and Anna Kassinger (Newseum) and World Young Reader Prize winners Joanna Pazio (Poland), Nelson Graves (France), Russell Kahn (USA), Katherine Schulten (USA). All photos by WAN-IFRA

The issue of teaching news literacy to students and adults “is in hyper drive now,” said Katherine Schulten, editor of The New York Times Learning Network, a program that has offered free teaching resources involving the news since 1998.

News literacy is more than just the ability to tell fake Katherine SchultenKatherine Schultenstories from real ones. More and more teachers are asking Schulten for resources to help students discern what sources are reliable. “My daily job is to get kids to think critically,” Schulten said.

Newseum Vice President of Education Barbara McCormack led a panel discussion on the topic at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in front of a joint meeting of international journalists who provide news reports for readers under age 25 and U.S. teachers who are members of the National Council for Social Studies.

Schulten and three other winners of WAN-IFRA’s World Young Reader Prize served as panellists, along with Anna Kassinger, curriculum manager for NewseumED.

Panellists and audience members explored issues that have left teachers struggling, such as how to have productive discussions with students about the U.S. presidential election when there has been such an explosion of information sources, many with questionable or no fact checking, and many with polarising viewpoints.

“No more is there a consensus of what to believe,” McCormack said. The NewseumED division, which McCormack heads, provides extensive downloadable resources to help teachers help students talk about divisive subjects.


Another barrier to news literacy, teachers in the audience said, is the opposition voiced by administrators and parents to discussing such topics as the election in class. That causes teachers to fear having class debates about fake news, such as President-elect Donald Trump’s assertion – without evidence – that millions of people voted illegally.

Classrooms are not the only settings in which discussion of world events is difficult, panellists said. “I have been hearing that many families opted not to have Thanksgiving dinner this year to avoid polarising discussions,” said Russell Kahn, Editor-in-Chief of News-O-Matic, an interactive news service for children. News-O-Matic makes a concerted effort to provide news that children understand and can check. It provides a button for children to be able to find the source of citations in stories. It goes even further and has a child psychologist on staff to vet every story before it’s published and has tips for what a young reader can do if he or she is upset by a story.


“We cite all our sources and credit the people we’ve interviewed for the articles,” Kahn explained in an interview after the panel. “What better way to let kids understand where the news comes from than by providing a transparent system for our texts? Of course, we also encourage our young readers to be junior reporters – sharing reports and reactions from their corner of the globe. But ultimately we want children to critically monitor the trail of information – and not blindly trust the veracity of the written words. That’s been part of our mission from day one.”

From left: Anna Kassinger, Joanna Pazio and Nelson Graves.From left: Anna Kassinger, Joanna Pazio and Nelson Graves.“Media literacy is important in all aspects of learning,” said Joanna Pazio, with Polska Press in Poland. Her own prize-winning effort, #juniormedia, includes an opportunity for students to learn about news by producing it.

McCormack emphasised the importance of making sure American students understand the five rights in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: freedom of speech, press, assembly, petition and religion. “First Amendment literacy is the foundation of media literacy,” she said.

Nelson Graves, founder of News-Decoder, an online service based in France that also provides webinars and international discussions with experts to help young people understand global news, ended the panel discussion on an optimistic note.

“Dire times equal tremendous opportunities,” Graves, an American, said. When more educators use the U.S. Constitution as a learning tool, he said, readers of all ages will benefit. “We have the potential to bring (the Constitution) into public discourse.’


Other winners at the session were also working to help young people judge all content, even within their own products. Kim Einder runs the online operation for two Dutch weeklies and who created a nearly cost-free news app for young people She said that news literacy is a popular topic in Kidsweek (8-12 year-olds) and 7Days (for teenagers). “We cover it whenever there’s reason to — like for the results of the Trump/Clinton election),” she said, “and we also participate in the annual Week van de Mediawijsheid (Dutch Media Literacy Week) in November. A few weeks ago, we gave kids/teens tips on how to check if news is trustworthy. One of our editors also gave workshops during a three-day media literacy festival for teens.”

However, the daily quest for her is more often more basic. “Mostly, media literacy is something we keep in mind in our day-to-day reporting,” she said. “We try to explain to our readers how stories are made, how reliable we think our sources are, how ‘scientific’ a scientific report is, et cetera. And mostly, we also tell, honestly, what we don’t know and what information we don’t have. We obviously consider ourselves a reliable source, but after all, we’re only humans too.”

Gerard van der Weijden of STEPP in Belgium is a World Young Reader Prize juror and world expert on the relationship between young people and the news. He agrees that there is no quick fix in arming young people against fake or misleading content. “For youngsters, being able to spot and deal with fake news is a process and not something to be achieved with a project or activity,” he said. “Essential for this process is that youngsters become and are newsreaders in the first place, users of good and bad media, good and bad examples, good and bad news.”

JDE explored the origins of conspiracy theories after the killings at the Charlie Hebdo weekly.JDE explored the origins of conspiracy theories after the killings at the Charlie Hebdo weekly.In France, the topic of false news arose most recently around conspiracy theories that emerged after the killing of a satirical weekly’s cartoonists, and this year’s Week of News Media and Information will concentrate on the origin of information. The children’s newspaper Journal des Enfants (JDE) will create a special dossier around false information, aimed at helping understand the origin, life and death of online rumors for the Week of News Media, set for March 2017.  “This dossier will be accompanied by a special publication on our website (,” Gaertner said, enabling young readers, teachers and parents to have tools and answers about how to deal with the multiplication of false information today.”


At an international level, current activity in global digital news literacy and the potential for more actions are huge, said Aralynn McMane of WAN-IFRA after the panel. McMane directs global news literacy and youth engagement work for WAN-IFRA, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers based in Paris.

“For our 16 Centers of Youth Engagement Excellence around the world, this is a natural, as these national media associations have been devoting staff and resouces to helping teachers help young people use and navigate news and other content for decades now,” she said. “And they keep innovating.”

In Norway, for example, the MBL Media Startup Society of the national media association, MedieBedriftene, has supported the creation of a From the Finnish guide Is it True?From the Finnish guide Is it True?“Demand the Source” app that gives the audience the the opportunity to consider and vote on the credibility of what they read. In 2016, the Finnish publishers’ association’s National News Week focused on the theme “Is It True” with a special guide for examining the details of such practices as Russian trolling to spread misinformation about Ukraine. The 2017 edition will concentrate on social media bubbles and source criticism within them.

In addition, WAN-IFRA itself offers resources for learning to judge what’s online. Most recently, it created “The Questions to Keep Asking,” an enhanced and internationalized version of the Newseum’s “Believe it or Not” resource for using a journalistic approach to all content and even one’s own research for school (in Spanish and English). Next will be a two-pronged new set of resources and recommendations of tools that offer a pro-active aspect of learning about news itself as one acts like a reporter or editor along with the more defensive tools to ferret out material with questionable sources.

“It’s crucial NOT to make this all about fear,” McMane said. “There are few more powerful lessons in source verification than giving young people the chance to try doing professional journalism themselves. We have already provided some models for how to do that and are planning even more. It is important to make this as much about the pro-active skill of searching for truth oneself — especially in a solutoins journalism approach — than just the re-active skill of distrust.” That’s why WAN-IFRA is framing its next actions in a “Veritas Approach” that calls for teaching to approach all kinds of information through a journalistic prism. Based on the “Believe it or Not” activity created by the Newseum in Washington DC, one part of a module of the WAN-IFRA Veritas Approach guides older primary and secondary students in how to use journalistic questions to judge content and then applies the skills to a school research project. Titled “The Questions to Keep Asking,” it is designed for use by a teacher and/or visiting journalist. Spanish version here.


“Also, we need to remember that some publishers are part of the problem as they provide advertorial and native advertising content with very, very subtle labeling,” she said. “That does little to help young people build the skill of separating wheat from chaff, professional journalism from the rest of it. Worse, it’s teaching people not to trust any of our content.” [See this Nieman Lab report on the inability of adults to tell the difference.]


Since the U.S. presidential election, source verification has garnered new interest with lots of players. In addition to the links mentioned in the story above, here are some other places to find solid resources.

EUROPEAN JOURNALISM CENTRE (Netherlands and Belgium) – The EJC’s Verification Handbook created in 2014 provides sensible guidance in ten languages (Arabic, Croatian, English, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, Spanish). Chapter 3 offers an especially good introduction to verifying user-generated content.

FIRST DRAFT NEWS (Global and France) – This global coalition brings together “the largest social platforms with global newsrooms, human rights organizations and other fact-checking and verification projects around the world.” This link goes to a piece about five things to check in a story. First Draft’s new CrossCheck set of tools for collaborative verification (in French starting 27 February) aims to help voters “make sense of what and who to trust online” as the presidential elections approach. Also, WAN-IFRA, a First Draft News partner, recently offered a webinar, “Truth & Trust in the Digital Age: Fighting Misinformation,” featuring Claire Wardle, First Draft News research director.

BBC (UK) – The British Broadcasting Company used the U.S. presidential election to explain some telltale signs of fake news.

PREMIERES LIGNES [FRONT LINES] (France) – This investigative documentary team is creating materials to help students learn to distinguish between real and fake conspiracies. The first video (in French) explores the real conspiracy of information perpetrated by U.S. cigarette producers and the fake conspiracy theories that emerged after the killings of journalists of Charlie Hebdo. [Premieres Lignes’ headquarters was on the same floor as the Charlie Hebdo offices. The video is the first step in a partnership with the education ministry’s media in education division (CLEMI) to create a complete kit on the topic. WAN-IFRA has donated English language subtitles for a version to be released in the spring of 2017.

EUROPEAN UNION EXTERNAL ACTION SERVICES (Europe) — This unit has published a self-help guide on how to counter fake news stories.

NEWS LITERACY PROJECT (USA) – The Project provides a great one-page starter activity.  One section of its new checkology™ virtual classroom offers extensive guidance on how to verify sources. It is a tad dry in the delivery, but very thorough. NPR, U.S. national public radio, did a very good piece on how checkology works (link and transcript here).

AMERICAN PRESS INSTITUTE(USA) – API, a WAN-IFRA Center of Youth Engagement Excellence, has a solid background in youth news literacy and also in fact-checking as one of its primary activities to help journalists. With veteran journalist Bill Kovach, API executive director Tom Rosensteil wrote the seminal if slightly dated guide to judging content, Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload (2010). API also supports a huge cadre of educators who have partnerships with local news organizations. Most recent resources include a curriculum for teaching news literacy skills in middle school (roughly ages 12-14) and six questions that tell you what media to trust.

THE NEW YORK TIMES LEARNING NETWORK (USA) – A top winner of the WAN-IFRA World Young Reader Prize for enduring excellence, this free service of the New York Times has been helping students and teachers navigate the news for nearly two decades under the direction of Katherine Schulten. Most recently it challenged teenagers to engage in civil discourse as they debated the issues in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election and offered tips for finding reliabe new sources.  In addition, it often gives young people a quality platform for their own opinions and journalistic production.

NewseumED (USA) – The education division of the Newseum, the Washington, DC-based interactive museum, offers a massive array of online tools for using and navigating the news with an emphasis on U.S. basic “First Amendment” freedoms (speech, press, religion, right of assembly, petitioning the government). Under the direction of Newseum VP Barbara McCormack, NewseumED has most recently provided guidance and resources to beleaguered teachers both before and after the the “anger, angst and roaring rhetoric” of the 2016 U.S. presidential election

[Thanks to  Gretchen Letterman, a former Tampa Bay Times staffer who became  Pinellas County Schools’ program coordinator for journalism-based magnet schools upon retirement, who contributed a great deal to this report.]

All photos by WAN-IFRA

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