3 Ways To Help Children Think Critically About The News

The news, whether it is on TV, newspapers or via social media, can be pretty scary for anyone at the moment, but most especially our children.

The recent spread of the coronavirus has created an avalanche of information being broadcast around the world – but what is real news and what is fake news?

In 2017, “The Conversation” conducted a nationally representative survey of how Australian children, aged 8 to 16, consumed news.  It was found that children as young as 8 years old are interested in the news.   The survey also showed that 73% of children regularly consume the same news as their parents or guardians and 49& get news from social media sites, which increases with age.  The survey also found that only one third of young people felt they could distinguish fake from real news.

So, how can we help our children critically think about the news they are being bombarded with?

Help them identify reliable news sources

Help children think about the following questions when evaluating if the new source is reliable:

  • is it clear who created this news? It’s not possible to trust a source you don’t know since you need to be able to be able to query the person or organisation about why and how they created the story
  • is this a straight presentation of the facts or does it include opinion? A fact is objective information, supported by evidence, and it can be checked to ensure it is right. Opinions are subjective thoughts about an issue nobody can prove are right. If opinions are presented as facts this is misleading
  • are the people essential to this story included? If a story makes claims about organisations or groups of people, they should be given the opportunity to reply to these claims.

Help them understand some media may exploit emotions

In the survey, 71% of young Australians said news often or sometimes upset them and 57% said it scared them. It’s not all negative though, as 69% said news often or sometimes made them happy or hopeful and 48% said it motivated them to respond to the situation being reported.

Discussing how children feel about news can help them decide which programs are good for them and which they should avoid.

While it’s natural for news about major events and issues to evoke emotions, sometimes people can also seek to exploit our emotional  responses for their benefit. Research shows catchy, provocative and sensationalist news headlines are more likely to receive clicks online.

Media can trick you into having an emotional response by:

  • using sensationalist claims or headlines not supported by facts. These claims may say things like “The wonder herb that stops coronavirus!” or “Coronavirus spreading fast on Sydney trains!”
  • using emotive or dehumanising language when describing people (such as referring to asylum seekers as “queue jumpers”) or their ideas (calling them “idiotic”)
  • using a shocking or altered image (such as one that suggests a celebrity might be pregnant or in a new relationship when she is not).

You can also talk to children about some of the reasons people spread disinformation, such as:

  • to influence how people will vote
  • they may be racist, sexist, homophobic or wish to vilify people they do not like
  • to discredit another person’s or group of people’s ideas to promote their own
  • to create clickbait, which is a sensationalist statement designed to encourage people to click on it. This can make money for a website’s owner if they include advertising, since they will be paid based on how many people see and click an advertisement.

Discuss how news media talk about different people

In the survey, 38% of children said news does not treat people from different race and cultural backgrounds equally and 40% believed news does not treat men and women equally.

Parents and teachers can help children be on the lookout for stories where some people are represented in a denigrating way that does not present their ideas fairly. In these cases it’s best to seek out other news sources to consider how they are reporting the story.

This kind of misinformation contributes to discrimination. In Australia people of Chinese heritage have experienced racist attacks while many Australians have now stopped eating at Chinese restaurants.

Trustworthy news is critical to society. We rely on it to help us make decisions about who to vote for, how we feel about events or other people, and how to manage aspects of our lives like our finances and health.

Identifying misinformation in the digital age is a challenge for everyone. As media literacy researchers, we have found listening to children’s experiences is a valuable starting point for developing their critical literacy.

This short ABC sci-fi drama helps children aged 12 and older recognise media bias.

[source: The Conversation, “3 ways to help children think critically about the news“, by Tanya Notley & Michael Dezuanni, March 2020]

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