What Matters is: Fake News and Media Education

by Becky Parry.

There’s a whoop of excitement which travels around the class like wild fire. The teacher has just shown his class of year five children a photo of a UFO which was ‘seen’ by another staff member the night before. The photo is fictional, as is the sighting; it is part of a simulated news production activity.  The children are on their second day of producing a news programme and their excitement is not generated by the idea that a teacher has seen a UFO, nor is it disbelief; they are excited because one child has just worked out that they can use the story as news. Throughout the room the children’s voices announce: ‘it’s news’, ‘we can use it as news.’ They look for confirmation from their teacher who affirms and then they cheer.

This memorable moment took place during the, ESRC funded, ‘Developing Media Literacy’ research project led by the Institute of Education UCL, which focused on learning progression in media education. What might we expect children of different ages to be capable of understanding about media and how might we expect their learning to develop? Working with two specialist Media Arts schools in the UK, and their feeder primary schools, we undertook a sequence of learning activities in collaboration with teachers that enabled us to teach key Media Studies concepts, right across the age range. There will be those who voice concerns about the rationale of a programme of media education for primary aged children. It is often assumed these sorts of experiences are superficial and they don’t reflect what really happens in the news-room. However, internationally, media educators recognise the increasing need for media or digital literacy which enables young people to navigate, what Jenkins (2006) describes as the ‘new global participatory culture’. In this activity, focused on news, we aimed to address what Jenkins call the ethics challenge, that is to say:

The Participation Gap — the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow.

The Transparency Problem — The challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world.

The Ethics Challenge — The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants.

(Jenkins 2006 p.3)

During this week of news production simulation the children took on the roles of reporters, as well as accountants, advertisers and regulators. A cost was attached to all activities – for resources (laptops, stationery), training and going out to do interviews all involved the children spending ‘money’. The task was to produce a radio news bulletin for their target audience and to make a profit. For a primary class this may seem an unnecessarily complex simulation, but it enabled the children to occupy roles well outside their own experience. In doing so they encountered a series of ethical dilemmas and had to make what Jenkin’s describes as ‘Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.’ They also had to learn to engage with ‘Simulation – the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of the real-world.’ (Jenkins 2006 p.4)

They had to balance the pursuit of truth and accuracy with an economic imperative and they had a strict deadline.

In role, as news gatherers encountering the UFO story, the children were excited by what they recognised as bigger than those they had come up with so far which either copied national news or resembled a school newsletter. At this point they did not worry about the veracity of the story – they had a strong ability to suspend disbelief. However, they were also developing an explicit understanding of magnitude as a criteria for news gathering, experiencing ‘in role’ the same feeling a journalist might have when a ‘big’ story breaks.

Later on I encountered Matthew who was upset. Having been checked by the two regulators, the news story he had written was found to be inaccurate. He was covered a story about a child who had fallen in the icy conditions outside and rather than interview the child and find out what had happened, Matthew decided to just ‘make it up’. It’s my guess that he didn’t think it was that important and he knew there was a cost involved to a face to face interview. However, he hadn’t bargained on the seriousness with which the two regulators took their role of fact checking. They went and interviewed the child and were in possession of the ‘facts,’ quickly realising Matthews’s account didn’t match the child’s. Later Matthew reflected ‘you shouldn’t lie’ and fellow group member Isaac added ‘well if it’s just about how many pieces a chocolate bar broke into it doesn’t matter, but if it is like the world is going to blow up, it does’. Matthew got to rewrite his story but his group have to pay a hefty fine. What bothered him was the thought that his group might not win and that his peers were disappointed he had lied.

The process of production created moments of crisis or decision-making which enabled the children to grapple with some of the most challenging issues we face in contemporary society. After Matthew had been fined the children all began rapidly checking their sources of information. The authenticity of the UFO story was called into question and many of them dropped it for fear of being fined. Others decided to go ahead because, although it was clearly fake, it was something the teachers had made up – so that was ok! This programme of activity was key to our findings that young children are capable of grappling with complex ideas in order to explore the world around them. Interestingly, the whole activity ran parallel to the aftermath of the Levison Inquiry. When I interviewed the children, later in the process, it was clear they had been paying attention to the news coverage, raising questions about the moral judgements of journalists listening in to people’s mobile phone messages.

Since this research project was reported, all traces of media education are long gone from the primary curriculum in England.  Perhaps, criticality is surplus to requirements in our post-truth, fake-news times; it hardly serves those seeking political office or positions of power. Indeed there is, arguably, an assumption that in contemporary times, anyone can create news and all of us like and share fake stories with impunity. However, as Barack Obama suggested at a recent conference:

If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.

Clearly, whether its about UFOs, ice accidents or the numbers attending the presidential inauguration – ‘the truth is out there’. Media education is key to equipping students with the skills they need to participate in establishing their own accounts and representing their own truths ethically and with judgement.

Becky is Assistant Professor of Education at the School of Education, University of Nottingham.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Jenkins, H. (2006). White paper Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Berkeley, US: MacArthur Foundation.


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