Raising News-Literate Kids in the Digital Age

Girl sits in front of book-filled wall of bookcases, intently reading her open laptop screen.

Remember the first time you used the Internet?

If you’re anything like I was, it was sort of a novelty – like wearing jelly shoes or keeping the tags on Beanie Babies. Looking back to the first time I heard that unforgettable dial-up sound, I don’t think I was anything but underwhelmed.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s become impossible to imagine life without 24/7 access to information, entertainment, and e-commerce. We use the Internet to connect with others, learn about the world, purchase products, and explore. According to a 2019 report from Hootsuite and We Are Social, the average U.S. user spends about 6.5 hours each day online.

Because so much of our information comes from the Internet, it’s critical that we understand how to vet out fact from fiction. Unfortunately, not everything we read online is true. And because the web’s growth happened so quickly, many people were never taught how to search for information with a critical eye.

At best, this can lead to a one-sided belief in what we read; at worst, it can contribute to the spread of misinformation and misunderstandings. That’s why I believe it’s so important to teach older kids and teens to understand how to read and synthesize what they find online – and to understand it ourselves.

Now, as we’re spending more time online than ever during the pandemic, we must be diligent about sorting fact from fiction and helping our families or students do the same. Read on for tips and strategies that can help you start the journey, inspired by the main four tenets of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University School of Journalism.

1. Know Who Wrote It

There’s so much information available – through social media, on websites, in videos – that it can be hard to cut through the noise and know where to focus.

Help kids understand that not everyone or every company who posts news stories is a journalist. A good rule of thumb is usually (though not always) to favor well-known, established journalistic institutions over new ones who’ve popped up online.

Bias is another issue. Journalistic principles teach that eliminating bias altogether is nearly impossible, but the goal should be to identify and reduce it as much as possible. Ask kids to identify possible biases in what they read. For example, was an article or study sponsored by a certain company? It’s best to take the results with a grain of salt.

And last, show kids an example of a more trustworthy website versus a more fly-by-night one. Any website can publish information, but whether it’s grounded in fact is another thing altogether.

2. Do Some Critical Thinking

It’s natural to take what we read as truth. But an old journalist adage says (popularly, if not word-for-word), “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Citizens are responsible for reading news critically and using it to form their own opinions, not just blindly following what stories say. And good journalism shouldn’t spell out the “right” opinion for readers, but leave that up to the audience.

A good exercise for kids to try would be giving them a topic, such as the environment, or a particular current news story. Have them find stories from a variety of sources.

Use a highlighter to select information that is similar amongst these stories and another color to show information that’s different. Ask kids to summarize the story or write their own version after reading these articles.

It’s also important to know that stories which seem to be the most popular and gain lots of traction online may not be the most accurate. If something seems too good to be true, do some background research to check it out.

3. Speed Doesn’t Always Win

Today’s journalists are working on faster deadlines than ever before during the 24/7 news cycle. They may even be posting stories online while on-scene at an event or incident.

Show kids that information might shift or change as time goes on. What appears to have happened initially might be something else entirely. Journalists make mistakes sometimes, especially when trying to publish a story quickly or be the first to report on it.

With your kids, check back on a breaking news story over the minutes, days, hours, and months after it happens. See how the facts change or grow over time and demonstrate that making immediate assumptions might not be the best strategy.

More Resources

This article just scratches the surface of this complex and important topic, but I believe it’s important to begin teaching these strategies to kids early on to help them be good digital citizens.

Here are a few other resources for parents and educators that may help you as you teach this concept, or if you want to learn more yourself.

Make The Most of This Moment

Understanding media and the news is more important than ever during these changing times.

Another way to help your family make a difference and make sense of the changing world is to take part in Project Giving Kids’ #ReadDoReflect project. You’ll find weekly reading suggestions, service activities, and discussion topics to help your family stay connected and make a difference during this time.

See Activity Ideas