Helping kids develop their news literacy skills has become more important than ever—and teaching kids only to identify fake news isn’t enough. To develop true news literacy, kids have to learn deeper strategies than simple fact-checking; they also have to consider how the news is gathered and presented.
The struggle parents may have in teaching their kids to seek out and identify factual, accurate news (versus the fake variety) is that many adults aren’t even confident in their own ability to do so. A recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts found that nearly half of American adults believe it’s difficult to know if the information they encounter is true.
But there are some key elements that parents and kids can dissect for clues about the fairness, accuracy and bias of individual stories.
Consider whether ‘both sides’ should be equally weighted
Young journalists are often taught to produce unbiased reporting by getting both sides. Whether it be an article about an election, a debate over whether to approve a new warehouse project or school budget cuts, reporters are expected set aside any personal opinions, present the facts from both sides, and let the readers, listeners or viewers draw their own conclusions.
But, as Seth Ashley, a Boise State University journalism professor, writes for The Conversation, sometimes “both sides” should not be equally weighted:
Even at its best, news is a representation of reality, not reality itself. News producers desperate to get “both sides” of a story can create false equivalence, as they have on issues like global warming where only one side is supported by actual evidence. An obsession with balance suggests there are always two equal and opposite sides to every story even when this is not the case.
Simply presenting two sides equally—especially when one side is supported by factual evidence and one side is not—does not accurately represent the truth. Fair does not always mean equal; kids (and adults) should consider when a journalist is trying too hard to give equal space to differing viewpoints to the detriment of accuracy.
Think “process” over “product”
Behind every news story is a human who decided who to interview for the article, which facts to include, and in what order to present them. If you hand the same story assignment to two different journalists, they are going to produce two different products.
This doesn’t necessarily mean one is right and the other wrong, but the way information is presented can cause readers to draw different conclusions. Ashley explains:
News stories are framed in ways that affect how we view things. When it comes to elections, for instance, horse-race coverage dominates. There is a narrow focus on polling and scandal. Actual policy coverage is often scant, as it was during the 2016 election. News frames also can lead to misrepresentations of minority groups in news coverage, which can create and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
When you read news articles or watch television news with your kids, talk about and question the process, including who was (or was not) interviewed, or how it might have been produced differently. Ask them if they think anything important was left out or whether there was too much emphasis on certain points.
Practice this yourself
Kids will take their cues from us. When they have questions about something in the news or a political issue, look up coverage from multiple sources—even sources you typically would not seek out.
This can illustrate how different outlets can present the same story in widely varying ways and teach them to avoid the confirmation bias of ideas that our pre-existing beliefs (and our computer algorithms) tend to favour.