News Literacy 101

Follow these steps to help kids (and you!) resist fake news, fact-check, and think critically about news and information. By Christine Elgersma
News Literacy 101

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.  

About Christine Elgersma

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Christine Elgersma wrangles learning and social media app reviews and creates parent talks as Senior Editor, Parent Education. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped cultivate and create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app... Read more

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Comments (2)

Adult written by KarenBl

I completely agree with everything that is written in this article. There are a lot of fraud information on the Internet that we need to be very careful what and who to believe in. My kid is always following news, sometimes even has his homework done by an essay writing service to spend more time on his phone. I am trying to restrict the access to the Internet, but I understand that there is no point to do it. Parents need to teach their children to think critical.
Parent of a 15 year old written by Auburnfriend

In your useful, thoughtful article on news literacy, you urge us adults to “make sure kids know the difference between fact and opinion. If they're older, talk about objective vs. subjective information and bias.” Trouble is, what most of us adults know about those differences has become distorted and may be the cause of some of our current divisiveness. Unhelpfully, “an opinion” has come to mean a claim so evidently false that we have no need to explain why we think it's wrong. By confusing the meaning of “fact,” “opinion,” “subjective,” and “objective,” we give ourselves justification to ignore or talk past each other. “Opinion” has come to mean nonfactual, as in the common expression, “That’s just your opinion.” But, what are opinions if not just claims about the world? Just claims, like any other claims — call them “views” “conjectures,” “assertions,” “statements,” whatever. Facts? We talk about them as if they and opinions are enemies. No, facts and opinions are on the same team. An opinion is just a proposed fact. Confirm an opinion, and it becomes a fact. Subjective? Subjective opinions are not — opinions are usually objective. That is, they are claims about the outside world. They can be wrong, but they still refer to the outside world. When I offer an opinion, it is never about something inside myself. “I love you” is subjective AND factual (since I don’t lie about such things); you’d laugh if I told you “I love you” — or I’m happy, or my arm hurts, or I like pinot noir best — was my opinion. Rather than dismissing someone’s claim as “that’s just your opinion,” we should be answering, “Here’s my opinion, the way I see the world.” Perhaps unraveling such a misunderstanding would get our nation’s conversation going again.