NewsWise is a cross-curricular news literacy project for 9-11 year olds in the UK, run by the Guardian Foundation, National Literacy Trust and the PSHE Association. Together we are working to create a generation of news wise, confident and engaged young people. We work in primary schools offering workshops, free lessons and resources, games, quizzes, and opportunities to hear from real journalists about how they write and fact check news reports.
Alongside resources for schools, we offer workshops as part of Initial Teacher Training and
Continuing Professional Development for teachers. In October we launched our Family Workshop strand, which offers families a chance to learn more about the news together, with a view to encouraging critical discussion about news at home, and sharing news and digital literacy skills with adults as well as their children.
Question 1: How has digital technology changed the way that democracy works in the UK and has this been a net positive or negative effect?
● Digital technology has given citizens in the UK greater access to information, debate, opinions and free news content than ever before.
● But education has not kept pace with the development of this digital technology. We believe that the curriculum does not equip young people with the digital literacy or critical thinking skills to safely navigate this vast and often overwhelming online world, and has not done so for many years. As a result, a generation are struggling to recognise the difference between disinformation and trustworthy, factual journalism, and as a result are unsure how to act when faced with democratic, health and other decisions.
● In addition to relying on peers and family members as sources of news, many young people are using social media to understand more about the world in which they live, and to begin to form their own values and opinions. When the information they consume online and via social media is not true, or misleading, children’s developing world views are manipulated. In these formative years, children are establishing values which will stay with them into adulthood and will affect the way they act, think, vote and the decisions they make about their wellbeing.
The move of news consumption away from communal platforms such as television, to solitary platforms such as those online, means that children are not as often given the opportunity to discuss and ask questions about news stories at home. This is supported by research from the National Literacy Trust, recently commissioned by NewsWise, which showed that 2 in 5 parents (39%) said they never watch, listen to or read news with their child at home and 1 in 5 (21%) never talk to their child about news2.
● This challenge is even more acute for children from disadvantaged communities, whose parents are more likely to never watch, listen to or read news with them (45% vs 37%) and to believe they don’t have the skills to spot fake news (52% vs 39%) than parents from more advantaged backgrounds3.
● At NewsWise we focus our work in areas of socio-economic deprivation, geographical diversity and in communities often underrepresented or unfairly represented by mainstream media. In our first year (2018-19) we met children who had until that point never had an opportunity to discuss or question news reports at home. We also saw shocking digital poverty in some primary schools: with one iPad per class or year group, children cannot develop the digital skills needed to read laterally across news sources. We know that cost is a barrier to schools: both the cost of technology, and the cost of accessing high quality education programmes.
“The fact that NewsWise is made available to us as a free resource was a huge factor in our decision to engage with the project. We have a very high number of free school meals pupils and are based in an area of high economic deprivation. School funds are pulled in all directions so being able to implement such a high quality resource which is so carefully aligned to our curriculum has been an amazing opportunity for both pupils and teachers alike.” Teacher, Llwynypia Primary School, Tonypandy, Wales
● With funding from Google.org until August 2020, we have been able to offer all of our resources and school workshops for free. We are exploring options to fund NewsWise beyond this date.
Question 2: How have the design of algorithms used by social media platforms shaped democratic debate? To what extent should there be a greater accountability for the design of these algorithms?
● The development of algorithms has certainly encouraged a prolonged and widespread use of social media platforms, but there is currently little transparency in how these work, and little accountability on the part of social media platforms to present a fair and balanced view of the world.
Anecdotally, we have seen that the majority of children with whom we work are using some form of social media platform, but have not been taught that information is targeted to the user. This can result in a dangerously biased view of the world. In an echo chamber it becomes impossible to make an informed, factual and balanced decision.
● At NewsWise, we encourage young people, teachers and families to consumer news broadly from a range of outlets and platforms, both online and offline, in order to see the bigger picture.
● In October 2019, NewsWise launched a new lesson for Upper Key Stage 2, teaching the concept of targeted information, algorithms and filter bubbles for the first time. This lesson was created with PSHE specialists and provides examples and activities in an age-appropriate and safe way.
3. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?
● We believe that education is a crucial pillar in the fight against disinformation, and therefore digital literacy skills are crucial in a civil, democratic society.
● At NewsWise we focus on the primary sector: we believe that, given children are exposed to digital technologies and online media from the moment they are born, it is remiss to only begin to give young people the skills to critically navigate the online world once they are teenagers.
● We have proven that NewsWise is making an impact both on children’s understanding of, and ability to identify disinformation, but is also generally allowing children from all backgrounds in engage in news and the wider world, often for the first time.
● In our second year, at the request of teachers, NewsWise will expand our offer to lower Key Stage 2 (7-9 year olds). We will provide opportunities for progressive learning of news and digital literacy through the last 4 years of primary education. ● In year 3, we intend to build on this progression, working with schools to use NewsWise to support children in their transition to secondary school, which often aligns with children’s first independent ownership of digital devices.
● We believe that digital literacy skills should be multidisciplinary: in PSHE and Citizenship children should learn about how news and other online information can be unreliable, and the subsequent consequences; how online information can affect their emotions and how to cope with this; concepts of power, and who can hold power to account in a democracy; and knowing who to trust online as part of healthy relationship building. In English, children should understand how to recognise language, points of view, inference and balance, and have an opportunity to apply these concepts not only to fiction and poetry, but also to news, videos, documentaries and podcasts.
We are calling on the Department for Education to ensure that the teaching of critical literacy relevant for the digital age is included within Initial Teacher Training and Continuous Professional Development. A whole-school approach to teaching critical literacy is essential to embed these skills across the curriculum.
● The assessment framework needs to be updated to position critical literacy skills more explicitly, reflecting the changing digital landscape and the threats posed by fake news, especially within the Key Stage 2 frameworks.
● NewsWise believe that alongside regulation and the development of technological solutions, education is key in allowing young people to develop healthy habits with which to engage with social media, news and information in the digital world. To facilitate this, we should be encouraging the use of a broader range of fiction, non-fiction and digital texts in the classroom, and explicitly mention the critical questioning of news (and social media) in the curriculum. This is not to devalue traditional literature, but to elevate the value of being able to critically navigate other media such as news and social media. This is cross-curricular topic which could be covered through English, PSHE, Citizenship and Computing.
Question 10: What might be the best ways of reducing the effects of misinformation on social media platforms?
● While social media gives politicians a new way to reach and communicate with previously unheard constituents, we have seen that the impact of social media on democracy has not been wholly positive. We have seen disinformation and misinformation creators on social media platforms deliberately infiltrate and leverage online communities, amplifying divisions in society. Such an untrustworthy and confusing landscape is not only causing young people to disengage with the democratic process, it is having an affect on their wellbeing.
● Recent research by the APPG on Literacy and the National Literacy Trust revealed that almost two-thirds of teachers (60.9%) believe that the proliferation of fake news online, including on social media, is harming children’s wellbeing by increasing levels of anxiety, damaging self-esteem and skewing their world view. The Key Stage 2 children we work with are developing their own identities and values, influenced not only by peers, families and communities but also the information they see, read, hear and learn.
● The overwhelming volume of information, and the difficulty in ascertaining fact from fiction, is making this development more stressful and confusing than necessary: half of children surveyed by the National Literacy Trust for the Commission on Fake News and Critical Literacy reported that they are worried that they wouldn’t be able to tell whether or not a news story was
true.6 Multiplied thousands of times over, this uncertainty and worry ultimately poses a threat to the democratic process, as highlighted in the recent DCMS Committee report on disinformation and fake news.7
● This is why education from an early age is key and why the recent DCMS Committee fake news report suggested that digital literacy should be a ‘fourth pillar of education’8. To empower children, and their families, to critically navigate the online world will not only re-engage them in healthy debate with the wider world, but also improve their wellbeing.
● Critically navigating the digital world includes the ability to question information: to look at the source, the coverage, the language and the visual cues. These navigation skills are relevant not only for major news stories, but also for rumours and opinions circulating on social media. To be empowered to know which questions to ask, and of whom, is to engage with the digital world in a positive and healthy way.
6 All Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy: Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools 2018
78 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/363/363.pdf https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/363/363.pdf
 Ofcom, News Consumption in the UK, 2019: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/tv-radio-and-on-demand/news-media/news-consumption 2 National Literacy Trust (2019):
https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/family-news-literacy-report/ 3 National Literacy Trust (2019): https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/family-news-literacy-report/
 NewsWise Year 1 evaluation (2019): https://www.theguardian.com/newswise/2019/jul/18/newswise-evaluation-report-2018-19
 All Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy: Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools 2018