News literacy 101: How to teach kids (and adults) to think critically

Follow these steps to help kids (and you!) resist fake news, fact-check, and think critically about news and inform

Published October 1, 2017 10:15PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on Common Sense Media.

Common Sense Media

If it's tough for us grown-ups to figure out what's real news and what's fake these days, imagine how difficult it is for kids. Among hearing opinions at home, talking with friends, learning from teachers, reading things online or in print, and seeing news on television, kids have a lot of information to sift through and a lot of sources to evaluate. According to Common Sense Media's report, News and America's Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News, kids feel scared and depressed about the news. How can we help them?

The answer is media literacy. And it starts with asking questions. By encouraging kids to question what they see and hear, you train them to think critically about information. With strong media-literacy skills, they'll be informed, engaged, and less likely to be taken in by fake news.

Here are some practical tips to help your kid be a smart consumer of the news.

Don't start believin'. While it's important to be open-minded, in today's world you have to be just a little skeptical of pretty much everything.

  • Little kids can build media-literacy skills by analyzing things such as toy packaging and cereal boxes. Tell them to put on their thinking caps (pantomime it!) to get them ready.
  • Tweens and teens can start with a little side-eye -- especially at online news -- and avoid sharing, forwarding, and commenting on stories until they've verified that they're true.

It takes all kinds. Talk about how there are lots of different kinds of news sources: investigative journalism, research studies, opinion pieces, blogs, punditry, evening news, and so on.

  • Kids will hear about the news at home, at school, and in other communities they're a part of. Explain that "word-of-mouth" stories and rumors aren't always true. Playing an old-school game of telephone might illustrate the idea of how information can get twisted along the way.
  • Make sure kids know the difference between fact and opinion. If they're older, talk about objective vs. subjective information and bias. Ask them for examples of undisputable facts and colorful opinions.
  • Explain the difference between established news organizations that follow certain professional standards and every other type of publisher.
  • Watch out for viral videos. Videos that circulate around the internet may or may not contain nuggets of real news, but they rarely represent the whole situation. And, like photos, videos can be doctored and edited to bend the truth. Check out Photoshop fails for visual examples.

From both sides now. There's usually more than one side to a story.

  • Talking about a real-life situation can help little kids understand the idea that different people have different points of view. Ask: "Remember when you and your sister were arguing? How many sides to the story were there?"
  • Older kids already understand the concept of perspective but might need help to transfer the idea to the news. Ask them to consider how different audiences (by gender, race, and culture) might interpret a story.

Play bad cop. Interrogate the source.

  • Walk kids through the questions they can ask to test a source's validity:
    • Who made this?
    • Why did they make it?
    • Is it for or against something or someone?
    • Are they trying to get a big reaction from me or just inform me? How can I tell?
    • Is anyone else reporting this news?
  • Look for signs that the source is legit and not fake, such as a clear "About Us" section and a standard URL (for example, ".com" instead of "").
  • Older kids can dig deeper with fact-checking websites.

Putting the pieces together. Sometimes the news can be like a puzzle with information coming in bits.

  • Just as with a puzzle, we need more than one piece to see the whole picture, so checking other sources is critical.
  • Remind kids that it's hard to have all the facts all at once. Even respected news outlets make mistakes or jump the gun. It's smart to wait to make up your mind about something until you have more information.
  • Model a wise approach to news by using media-literacy skills yourself. Show kids how you check other sources and ask questions to get as much truth as possible.
  • Leave some space for kids to make up their own minds. Of course we want them to respect our values and beliefs, but we also want kids to hold them up to the light to see for themselves.

By Christine Elgersma

MORE FROM Christine Elgersma

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Common Sense Media Critical Thinking Fact-checking Fake News K-12 Education Media Literacy