Knowing Fact From Fiction

News literacy education can help kids manage media consumption and build critical thinking skills.

Topics: Literacy, Curriculum and Instruction

When it comes to teaching media literacy, there is no such thing as too early or too often. It’s fundamental to ensuring that students leave school able to discern fact from fiction, recognize reliable news sources, and navigate the information landscape with confidence.

Media literacy education prepares young people to thrive in a rapidly evolving and complex world, equipping them with critical thinking skills that apply to all aspects of modern life. But it is more than that—media literacy is essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy.

America’s singular form of governance can’t survive if the public is uninformed, misinformed, or drowning in news and content of questionable credibility. If we expect students to become well-informed, engaged, and equal participants in our democracy, we need to teach media literacy, and we need to start now.

According to a 2022 study from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 62 percent of adult respondents said they see false or misleading information online every week. Disinformation fuels distrust and polarization, which erodes people’s ability to be good citizens and neighbors.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer found that only 30 percent of respondents would help someone in need if that person disagreed with their point of view. Think about it: Helping a person in need—a value we teach to kindergartners—is being undone by disinformation.

That’s why it’s so important to give kids the skills and knowledge they need to spot falsehoods, seek credible information, and share that knowledge with others. It’s foundational to their ability to learn and grow as students and citizens.

News Literacy Education

News literacy education is a solution. It places the emphasis on developing healthy skepticism, but not cynicism, for news and information. Founded in the First Amendment, it offers concrete, nonideological learning standards for a variety of subjects, and it seeks to teach children how to think about news and information, not what to think about specific sources.

Finland serves as the international model for a comprehensive approach to media literacy education. In 2022, for the fifth year in a row, Finland ranked No. 1 among 41 European countries in resilience against misinformation based on the results of a survey performed by the Open Society Foundations.

Finland might be small and homogeneous, but its citizens’ media literacy is not happenstance. The discipline is part of a core curriculum taught from preschool through high school and across all subjects. Students learn to apply critical thinking and other media literacy skills to their daily lives, including making evidence-based decisions about everything from their health to their finances to their futures.

A Framework for Facts

Here at home, news literacy education can be adapted across disciplines and made relevant to, and appropriate for, all students in grades K–12. I’m confident in the approach because my organization, the News Literacy Project (NLP), a national, nonpartisan education nonprofit, has been developing it for 15 years.

Some states have begun to legislate the inclusion of media literacy education in public schools beginning in kindergarten; New Jersey is the latest. But even without a mandate, you can get started now.

The Framework for Teaching News Literacy developed by NLP can help educators know the common questions that news literacy instruction should address, such as “What distinguishes facts from opinions, and why does the distinction matter?” and benchmarks such as “Students distinguish news from other types of information and can recognize both traditional and nontraditional ads.”

Suggested performance tasks encourage students to monitor their own media consumption or consider how to become more civically involved. The framework allows schools to integrate news literacy into an existing curriculum or form the basis for stand-alone courses, regardless of discipline.

Going Beyond Civics

At NLP, we often talk about news literacy as a foundational competency of civics education, but news literacy can be woven into any subject. NLP offers lessons that dive into news literacy concepts in science, health, and math. In the younger grades, English language arts instruction is a natural starting point.

In the same way kindergarten students can learn story elements (character, action, beginning-middle-​end) before they are able to read and write, they can understand news literacy concepts and build on that knowledge in the later grades. Similarly, young children can grasp media literacy foundations such as fairness and context before they are able to evaluate news articles and sources. Using news literacy terms early on, in familiar contexts, can be reinforced in more “abstract” ways later in kids’ educational careers.

A preliminary outline of concepts in a K–8 setting might start with foundational materials, including definitions and explanations of the difference between news and opinion. In middle school, students might explore nuances in evidence, with lessons on the First Amendment, branded content, editorial cartooning, and more. In high school, students can learn about algorithms, investigative journalism, press freedoms, and conspiratorial thinking.

The North Salem (New York) School District focused on middle and secondary schools when officials there joined NLP’s first cohort of district fellows, who work with NLP over a two-year span to implement news literacy instruction in a sustainable way. North Salem Central is wrapping lessons based on the NLP framework into its digital citizenship curriculum. Students learn about First Amendment rights, the importance of a free press, and how to distinguish between news and advertising.

Attending an annual leadership meeting for district fellows “inspired us to think about how we could extend the work to our elementary school,” says Julio Vasquez, the district’s director of instruction in human resources, and the district is preparing lessons to introduce news literacy concepts in K–5 classes. “We see great value in the work, and it connects to our district mission: to ensure our students continuously question, define, and solve problems through critical and creative thinking.

“Nowadays, kids are producers of news or at the very least sharing news they hear,” Vasquez adds. “Being able to look at a source and discern whether or not it’s credible and verifiable—that’s essential in terms of being a citizen.”

Social studies teacher Chris Bily started using NLP’s Checkology e-learning system when he joined Whitnall Middle School in Hales Corner, Wisconsin, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. During six-week curriculum rotations known as Flights, his students learn to recognize bias in news stories and determine if sources are reliable.

“Kids are navigating this world earlier and earlier,” Bily says. “All the things you have to navigate when information is coming at you constantly from all different places and all these different platforms—they have to be ready. It’s our responsibility to help them.”

Here are a few practical tips to keep in mind when incorporating news literacy into your curriculum:

Spend time cultivating trust in quality journalism. We want students to have a healthy skepticism toward information, not an unhealthy cynicism. Teach the standards of quality journalism and identify examples of news stories that live up to those standards. With young learners, focus on digestible elements of a news report, such as how the careful choice of words in a headline can help avoid bias.

Use news literacy to build vocabulary. There’s no shortage of relatively advanced, discipline-specific terminology such as “disinformation” or “algorithm” in media literacy education. But students can also benefit from learning more familiar words such as “news” and “advertisement” so they can better identify information by its primary purpose.

Use real-world examples. NLP regularly offers teachable moments from timely, real-world examples of online content through the RumorGuard fact-checking platform and The Sift newsletter for educators. Find examples that suit your classrooms; for example, one activity designed for upper-elementary classrooms asks students to assess the veracity of news reports that the heroine of Disney’s Frozen was arrested for causing extreme temperatures. One of Bily’s recent lessons asked students to examine the veracity of a viral video showing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees getting struck by lightning designed to gin up publicity for a new sports betting platform. “We watched this video and tied it into recognizing fake news,” he says. “The kids are so much more engaged with that” than with lessons on ancient history.

Don’t introduce conspiracy theories. These are among the most persistent and dangerous forms of misinformation, and young people are particularly vulnerable. If a student asks about a conspiracy theory rather than discussing the content of the narrative, remind them of the kinds of questions they should ask when they encounter a far-fetched claim. With the youngest learners, remind them that if something they hear about online makes them feel a big emotion, it might be a sign that the information is untrustworthy.

Don’t assume prior knowledge. Just because today’s youths are digital natives doesn’t mean they understand the basics of news literacy. Knowing the difference between a fact and an opinion, for example, is a foundational lesson that can’t be taken for granted.

Ultimately, news literacy education should not be an afterthought; it’s a necessary and neglected area of study for children of all ages. Let’s fix that.

Charles Salter is president and CEO of the News Literacy Project and a former teacher, school leader, and teachers union president.