Friday 14 December 2018

Áine Kerr: News literacy now top priority

'That our 10-year-olds have the best reading achievement of any EU or OECD country and are eclipsed by only two other countries (Russian Federation and Singapore) hopefully gives them a better chance of being discerning eagle-eyed users of online news and information.' (stock photo)
'That our 10-year-olds have the best reading achievement of any EU or OECD country and are eclipsed by only two other countries (Russian Federation and Singapore) hopefully gives them a better chance of being discerning eagle-eyed users of online news and information.' (stock photo)

Áine Kerr

Irish primary school children came fourth in a global top 10 for literacy this week; a feat Irish teachers and parents should take immense pride in.

Our opportunity now is to use that springboard to ensure our children are also world leaders when it comes to news literacy in an ever-evolving transformational digital landscape.

Literacy isn't and shouldn't be about our reading abilities alone but our critical thinking abilities.

That our 10-year-olds have the best reading achievement of any EU or OECD country and are eclipsed by only two other countries (Russian Federation and Singapore) hopefully gives them a better chance of being discerning eagle-eyed users of online news and information.

But it shouldn't be left to chance when other countries are investing in news literacy programs aimed at developing critical thinking.

Today's generation is growing up in a world where the phrase 'post-truth' was the Oxford dictionary word of the year in 2016 and 'fake news' took the honours in 2017 after its use rose by 365pc. These children have more information at their disposal than any previous generation which is both wonderful and challenging.

Challenging because they're growing up in an information ecosystem where it's increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction, and where satire, parody, misleading content, impersonated content, fabricated content and manipulated content can all appear in your social news feed in any one log-in.

In some cases real videos and images are being doctored/photoshopped to deceive and factual content is being shared with false contextual information. In other cases, the content is 100pc false and designed to sow confusion. Why do hoaxsters bother? In the mildest cases, it's an effort to punk or parody. In the severest cases, it's an effort to profit, incite hatred, exert political influence or spread propaganda.

Today, social media is where many of us access news and information (some 41pc of Irish Facebook users, for example, employ it as a route to news according to the recent Reuters Institute Report) but the mindless scroll to find trustworthy authentic information, especially in a breaking news story, can be overwhelming.

Not only are we having to contend with potentially hoax content but trying to stay attuned to potential biases, slants and influences, in an addition to unexplained algorithms making recommendations, cookies tracking you across the internet offering you that same irritating ad over and over after one brief search months ago, and your digital footprint being public and open to examination and exploitation. (This helps explain why 86pc of Americans have removed or masked their digital footprint, and why one in 10 of the world's internet population are now blocking ads.)

Our children need new tools, new filters, new skills that go far beyond our traditional notion of literacy. Done right, they will be the future voices of wisdom in the digital crowds. My generation is one where we're forever seeking an adrenaline hit in our rush to be among the first to share a potentially viral video or piece of breaking news. The next generation can be the one to get its kicks in debunking content, in asking critical questions, in demanding transparency over how their data is used and how algorithms operate.

In the United States, the News Literacy Project is dedicated to giving children aged 11 and upwards the tools, tips and resources to learn how to tell fact from fiction, via lessons in a 'checkology' virtual classroom. Over 6,000 teachers working with 850,000 students in the US and in 50 other countries have registered for the online classroom since May 2016.

The project's motto is simple: when you're informed, you're empowered. Via a series of free lessons, students learn the difference between news and branded content, how to differentiate trending rumours from reported facts, what questions to ask about the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How, and how to go about detecting biases.

Here in Ireland, there's been a notable news literacy programme for Transition Year students known as PressPass. But much more is needed, and at an earlier stage of a child's development because you're never too young for news literacy.

One expert, Howard Schneider, executive director of Stony Brook University's Centre for News Literacy in the US, believes every 12-year-old should become inoculated against fake news by becoming news-literate, arguing education programs for older students come too late as we all have unconscious biases, emotional attachments and biases in our later years.

The Broadcasting Association of Ireland is off to an important start with its media literacy policy and plans to develop an Irish Media Literacy Network. Its ultimate success will require a network effect of parents, teachers, newsrooms, social media platforms, librarians and advocacy organisations collaborating to ensure tangible skills are being taught to today's generation.

Too often as a journalist and editor, I obsessed on the 'supply' of quality journalism (how much of it I could produce and how could I beat my competitors) and not enough about the 'demand' for it. Not enough time was spent thinking about how to make my journalism more accessible, more meaningful and relevant to people, how I could be more transparent about how I did the work of journalism and therefore build more trust.

Those questions are ones I now obsess on every day amid this yawning trust gap between the media industry and the public, at a time when I believe quality journalism is more important than ever for a healthy and functioning society.

The trust gap exists for a litany of reasons, some of which we as a media industry must take urgent responsibility for.

And in our effort to do better, we need to be part of a new movement to empower our future generations who are also our audiences.

Otherwise, we risk failing to teach our children enough about the world they're living in and how to navigate it as informed engaged citizens.

Aine Kerr is co-founder and COO, NevaLabs

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