Informed Opinions: Teaching Students How to Recognise Fake News

It seems that we now live in a world of make believe where the line between fact and fiction are blurred. Our traditional news outlets, underpinned by journalistic standards and ethics, are being replaced by unregulated social media feeds delivered unprompted right to our screens. We now have access to a daily diet of stories with snappy “click-bait” headlines designed to hook us in at first glance as they speak to our personal interests and in some cases, our fears.  Supported by targeted advertising campaigns that know how we think and potentially how we can be swayed to act, these social media algorithms are pervasive and persuasive in equal measure. Whether it’s encouraging us to buy a product or vote a certain way we are constantly bombarded by digital messages that look like legitimate content. If we cannot discern information from misinformation then how are we to make an informed opinion?

It’s hard to believe now given the amount of news stories on the detrimental impact of “Fake News” on our democratic processes, but up until around 18 months this wasn’t yet a defined “thing”. Political spin and propaganda have always existed but what’s happened in the last couple of years, specifically around the shock results of Brexit and the 2016 US Election, has made governments and ordinary people start to look at how and where we get our news. Children and young adults in particular are presented with huge amounts of digital content through their mobile devices; we need to support them as they negotiate this labyrinth of information/misinformation and give them the tools to critically assess the value, truth, integrity and motive of the message and the source. Thankfully there are more and more teaching resources becoming available online that are helping to kick start the discussion with students on this important topic. Here are two free resources for primary and second level students.


This free cross-curricular eight week programme Mediawise for primary school students was launched last September by and is aimed at helping children to understand the media, including advertising and fake news. It supports the following age groups: Junior/Senior; 1st/2nd Class, 3rd/4th Class and 5th/6th Class with 32 lesson plans including eight interactive lessons. The accompanying child-centred activities are linked to Language, SPHE, SESE, Drama, Geography, Visual Arts and Mathematics.

The programme covers four important topics with age appropriate content and presentation style:

  1. What is the Media? –  An introduction to the many forms of media and advertising.
  2. The Message and Emotion behind the Media – A look at the different elements in the media, why a given type is chosen and how these messages impact on our emotions.
  3. Who is the Target? –  Defining the target audience and how different media appeals to different audiences.
  4. Media’s Influence on Us – Examining how the media delivers information and helps to shape our views and opinions.

BBC IReporter

A collaboration between the creators of Wallace & Gromit – Aardman Studios and the BBC, this interactive game aimed at 11 to 18 year olds allows the student to see inside a busy BBC newsroom and to experience first-hand what it’s like to be a journalist breaking a news story in real-time. Players need to act quickly as they try to work out what information is accurate and what is false and then decide when to publish. It highlights the pitfalls of using unverified information particularly from social media sources and how fact checking with colleagues and sources is imperative prior to publishing a story. Success in the game depends on accuracy, speed and impact of the resulting story. This is an excellent and highly engaging game, giving a real sense of the pressures on journalists to deliver a story to high ethical standards under a time pressure. There are three lesson plans to support the game, together with a teacher guidance.

BBC iReporter – Get Ready to Make the Headlines

Lesson 1: Real versus Fake News – how to evaluate information and digital content. The term “REAL” here is provided as a very useful acronym :

  • Real – does it all seem real? Does some of it seem fake?
  • Evidence – what do you have to prove it, what are your sources?
  • Ask around and add up everything you’ve found out
  • Look around to see if anyone else is covering the story

Lesson 2: Sources and Who to Trust – How many sources does a journalist need to verify a story? How can we trust these sources?

Lesson 3: Social media, Images and Data – Spotting the real from the fake in social media feeds, how images and data can be manipulated.

The BBC is also piloting the Moral Maze – the Evidence Toolkit  to support development of critical thinking skills. Aimed at 16 to 18 year olds, students analyse a series of news stories. Again, there are lesson plans available covering “Making Claims”, “Trustworthy News” and Balanced News” with accompanying downloads.

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