The recent emergence of concerns about the prevalence of ‘fake news’ has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that the news is and always has been constructed for us to consume rather than being an objective reality that is simply reported.
What does this mean for us as parents and educators?
We urge young people to embrace active citizenship by taking an interest in current affairs and familiarising themselves with political processes and beliefs, reminding them of the importance of using their right to vote responsibly. Exactly how we should prepare them for these vital responsibilities in an age of ‘fake news’ is far from obvious, however.
Of course, politicians have always tried to manipulate the news – I think of Henry VIII censoring Catholic broadsheets during the Reformation. The scandal of government aide Jo Moore’s memo on 9/11 – saying that the attacks on the Twin Towers made it a good ‘day to bury bad news’- was only the most blatant example of a tendency by the powers-that-be to massage the message.
However, the proliferation of news and commentary via social media feeds – filtered to targeted audiences but unfiltered for quality – has added new layers of complexity to the task of separating wheat from chaff in a data-saturated world where reportage, commentary, opinion and speculation are all blended together into a baffling brew.
One L5 student at a recent tea party put her finger on the crux of the problem when she said, ‘which sources can we trust?’
Let us not be nostalgic sentimentalists. Lies were told and truths withheld in the past, of course. In 1957, Harold Macmillan hid the truth about an accident at the Windscale nuclear plant that threatened to create a catastrophe on a par with the Chernobyl disaster of almost thirty years later.
In fact, the opening up of access to information ushered in by the internet is potentially a great force for good in the development of informed citizens. It seems inconceivable that a cover-up on the scale of Macmillan’s could succeed nowadays. At the same time, however, it requires of our young citizens critical faculties, which do not come ready-made. This places a large onus on schools and parents to nurture the necessary interpretive skills to separate fact from fiction.
At school, we encourage discussion and debate – in lessons, clubs and societies, events and visits – in a bid to make school a lively Academy, just like Plato’s in his day (though more inclusive!), for the formation of an educated citizenry. An engagement with the democratic process (such as through this week’s mock General Election) promotes a better understanding of the pressures and limitations on politicians today and counteracts the sensationalists and conspiracy theorists occupying the darkest niches of the Net.
By and large, however, our students do not have much faith in the ability or even the willingness of their leaders to surmount the challenges of today and tomorrow. Moreover, they are genuinely anxious about the state of the world, seeing the threat from state-sponsored terrorism (from North Korea, say) or from randomised hate crimes, such as those recently in Manchester and London, as shadows which cloud their daily lives and threaten their futures.
Unlike their parents and grandparents, they do not have the benefit of the long view to put these events into perspective – the memory of nuclear stand-offs during the Cold War or the everyday realities of British city life during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, for example. Moreover, they do not have the benefit of traditions of investigative reporting on the part of news producers and of sustained background reading on the part of news consumers. (This means that, if you have got this far in my blog, you are bucking the very trend I am describing!)
Another dimension to this issue, less often remarked on but, in my view, just as problematic, is the tendency of news coverage to focus on the negative and the sensational at the expense of the positive if unglamorous. In 2016, the battle to eradicate malaria from Sri Lanka was won and an historic peace deal was brokered in Colombia after the longest civil war in modern times. However, these are not the things which come uppermost to mind when surveying the headlines of the world’s news last year.
Good news is simply not as compelling as bad news – and tends to be relegated to the innermost pages of the newspaper or that frothy item to round off a bulletin before we segue into the weather forecast (often another cause for gloom). Little wonder, then, that young people see little to cheer them – or encourage them to have faith in the political process – in their news feeds. Only by digging beneath the surface, a discipline as well as an investment of time, can we hope to reach the balance and breadth of reporting that counterbalances fakery, doom-mongering and sensationalism.
Is it over-optimistic, I wonder, to see, in the inclusion of so many column centimetres about the collective effort to help the traumatised victims by neighbours, bystanders and also well-wishers across the world in the coverage of the atrocity in Manchester, a glimmer of hope for the future? What I am sure of is that the level of engagement among our students in the mock General Election (and I write this in the heat of debate before the outcome is known) is a reassuring sign that the kind of attachment to the democratic process, that forms the only realistic bulwark against the success of terrorism, is alive and well among the next generation of voters in this corner of the UK at least.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress
news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7030281.stm on Windscale