The fake news detective agency heads to Hay

07 Jun 2019

NewsWise, our news literacy project run in partnership with the Guardian Foundation and the PSHE Association, headed to Hay Festival this year to spread the word about fake news and how to spot it. Project Manager Elli Narewska explains what went on...

The NewsWise Fake News Detective Agency bounced into Hay Festival this year, equipped with deerstalkers, poo emojis, a unicorn and lots of fake news activities for primary school children and families.

NewsWise at Hay Festival

It was a thrill to watch hundreds of trainee detectives cheer and jeer their way through a fake news quiz, explore how clickbait headlines work, identify misleading photos, sort rumour and opinion from facts and compare fake and real websites. The team has spent a year taking NewsWise workshops to classrooms all across the UK, but this was the first time we had performed in front of such a big audience.

The Guardian Education Centre was also part of the team at the festival, running I’m a Journalist Get Me Out of Here sessions for huge secondary school audiences. Students made judgements on news stories, planned a podcast for The Guardian's Today in Focus and enthusiastically discussed the climate crisis to raise questions for a possible Guardian Weekend Magazine article.

NewsWise resources and activities are all designed to enlighten children about how news - including fake news - is created and structured, demystifying the process to enable them to deconstruct and analyse news stories, and spot when something doesn’t look or sound right. We bring together experts in literacy, journalism and PSHE to address concerns raised by the National Literacy Trust’s report on fake news and critical literacy: that only 2% of children have the critical literacy skills they need to identify fake news, that young people trust the news less as a result of fake news and that teachers are concerned about the effect that fake news is having on children’s wellbeing.

There is widespread interest and alarm about fake news. An increasing mistrust of mainstream media among both older and younger people comes alongside a proliferation of social media channels through which unregulated reports and commentary are shared. The spread of misinformation has serious real-world consequences: suspicion about vaccinations has seen a drop in immunisation rates leading to outbreaks of measles across Europe and the United States; there is concern about how targeted misinformation over social media may have influenced elections globally.

Whilst this can sound overwhelming and intimidating, the enthusiasm with which our trainee detectives threw themselves into tackling fake news shows that it is also an area about which children are curious. Our object is to encourage critical questioning of the news, but also to show how news is exciting and important - making activities as fun and memorable as possible.

These are essential skills that need to be brought into the classroom before young people have developed ingrained habits and attitudes to news, at a time when they are beginning to have their own devices: Ofcom’s most recent report on children’s media use and attitudes shows that eight to 11-year-olds increasingly have their own devices and social media profiles and now spend more time online than they do watching a TV set.

Hay festival NewsWise voting

NewsWise at Hay Festival on stage

News consumption has become much more of a solitary rather than a shared activity: people receive alerts on their own individual devices rather than sit down together to watch the six-o-clock news. Our family workshops are designed to encourage parents and children to discuss news stories together and to equip children and adults alike with tools to combat misinformation.

To help children see how easy it is to create a fake news headline - and understand some of the tricks used to make us click - we used the clickbait-headline-generator: three dice (inflatable or digital) tossed to land on examples of subjects, verbs and objects, creating outrageous headlines. We also looked at a series of misleading images to examine how they had been altered and had a go at creating a forced perspective photo using the aforementioned unicorn as well as dinosaurs and other unlikely objects. The purpose of each of these activities is to show the working: when you know how something has been done, it is much easier to spot the trick in the future.

Opportunities for children to do some reporting themselves helps to consolidate their learning about news. In our Hay workshops this came in the form of some breaking news about an escaped gorilla: could they sort the facts from the rumours and opinions appearing online in time to present a 20-second news bulletin?

Both school and family sessions were full of laughter and energy and crucially the focus was on being an active reader and consumer of news; to take responsibility and be in control of what you read, believe and share; to be empowered with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the world of news.

NewsWise is currently looking for schools to take part in the second year of the programme. If you’d like to get involved, please register your interest. As well as the workshops that we take to schools and events such as Hay, our unit of work is available for everyone to download from our website.