Adults made the media mess

Social media platform Facebook pulled the plug on Australian news last week after a tussle between the government and the digital giant. What does that mean for Australian educators and students? What are the ways we can combat misinformation and disinformation? And how far along are we in the struggle to teach media literacy (answers from a professor and a PhD student)? How important is it for students to create their own content? PLUS read an excerpt from Kid Reporter, a handbook for young investigators (and their teachers) by Saffron Howden and Dhana Quinn; and Peter Greste’s review of the book.

Read Michael Dezuanni on media literacy in Australian classrooms

•Read Stephanie Wescott on the struggle to detect bias

•Read Naomi Barnes on why content creation by students is critical

Read Peter Greste’s review of Kid Reporter

Extract from Kid Reporter

We need more than one in five

Why we must foster media literacy in Australian classrooms

By Michael Dezuanni, Queensland University of Technology

Media literacy has gained a great deal of attention in recent years due to ongoing controversies about the circulation of fake news on social media platforms.  Most recently, disinformation about the COVID 19 pandemic has been at the forefront of public discussion in Australia, as high profile media celebrities and a federal politician have shared misleading information about false COVID causes and cures. Donald Trump’s fabricated claims of election fraud in the United States, and circulation of disinformation about arson attacks during the 2019/2020 bushfire season in Australia are other high-profile examples. Meanwhile, the power that social media platforms wield in society has never been clearer than in the recent Facebook news ban in Australia. In each of these cases, there have been calls for media literacy to be ramped up as a public policy and education response. 

Although media literacy is often seen as a novel response to media controversies, there is a long history of media literacy education in Australia. Its roots date back to at least the 1950s when University of Tasmania educator W.H. Perkins worked to introduce film appreciation education into the classroom. In the 1960s, educators in Victoria and South Australia fostered film and media analysis in English and Art classes, and the Australian Teachers of Film Appreciation (later Australian Teachers of Media) was established.  During the 1980s, most State Departments of Education introduced media education curricula and policy documents. Currently, Australia is one of the few countries in the world to have a preschool to year ten scope and sequence for media literacy education in the form of Media Arts in the Australian Curriculum. In addition, English teachers are encouraged to include media texts in their curricula, and English in the Australian Curriculum specifically cites news production and analysis within content elaborations from year 5 and up.  

Despite the existence of the current curriculum opportunities, and a proud history of media literacy education in Australia, though, it is included in fewer Australian classrooms than one might expect.

Michael Dezzuani

Over the past five years, I have collaborated with Dr Tanya Notley from Western Sydney University to investigate news literacy, particularly with a focus on young people. 

Our surveys of Australian children and young people’s news media experiences conducted in 2017 and 2020 show that only one in five young people have experienced news analysis in the classroom, and only about one in three has created a news story at school.  Meanwhile, our study of Australian teachers shows that while they overwhelmingly say it is important to teach about bias and misinformation in the classroom, most also say there are many barriers to including media literacy lessons. 

Teachers cite lack of knowledge about media literacy, lack of professional development and timetable constraints as key barriers to the implementation of media literacy in the classroom.  There is no doubt that studying the media requires teachers to acquire at least some subject specific language and knowledge.  In addition, media literacy work often includes media production, involving the creation of still images and video, with a necessity to combine these with specialist software. Teachers often lack the technological knowledge to include media production in the classroom. 

On a more positive note, it is possible to make media with readily available technologies like tablet computers, and many teachers already involve their students in media literacy–like activities without realising it. Often, Digital Technologies curriculum tasks can be slightly altered to also meet Media Arts requirements. Professional development materials, and classroom resources are also increasingly available to schools; a recent example is the Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s Media Literacy Lab materials. 

An ongoing challenge, then, is to work out how we can support teachers to include media literacy education in their already busy classrooms.  The goal of our research is to support these efforts through the development of resources such as our Framework for Media Literacy Education, and through supporting the efforts of the recently formed Australian Media Literacy Alliance. We see these as essential initiatives given that our media environment is likely to become even more complex and ubiquitous in people’s lives in the years to come. 

Michael Dezzuani is a professor in the School of Creative Practice, Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology.

I began to see the words and ideas of far-right extremists being repeated back to me as truth

By Stephanie Wescott, Monash University

This week’s retaliatory action by Facebook to remove Australian news sources sparked conversations around the impact social media news-sharing has had on our ability to identify credible news.

In Victorian schools, arming students with the ability to analyse and identify tactics of persuasion in writing is a substantial component of the English curriculum. The VCE English Study Design (VCAA, 2014) stipulates the key knowledges required to meet the outcomes for Area of Study 2, Analysing and presenting argument, including an understanding of: 

  • the ways authors construct arguments to position audiences; and 
  • the features of written, spoken and multimodal texts used by authors to position audiences

However, the texts provided to students in the exam, and for practise in classrooms, are fictionalised pieces that often bear little resemblance to texts students encounter outside the classroom. Unless teachers expose students to a range of media texts throughout their junior school education, and unless schools offer subjects specifically addressing media literacy, assumptions made about digital natives’ inherent abilities to assess the trustworthiness of information they encounter online can leave them with dangerous knowledge gaps. 

During my career as an English teacher, I became increasingly concerned about my students’ lack of media literacy, which culminated in specific vulnerabilities around trusting misinformation, believing conspiracy theories, and, in some cases, following radical right-wing personalities on YouTube and being seduced by their rhetoric. I began to see the words and ideas of far-right extremists being repeated back to me as truth, and a disinterest in engaging with clarifications about why their sources weren’t trustworthy. Explanations offered to students around the unreliability of the information they were consuming often found us falling deeper into conspiracy rhetoric, with students repeating anti-mainstream media suspicions and beliefs around the alleged hegemony of left-wing and/or feminist media. 

I attempted, across all year levels, to equip them with the skills and knowledge to not only understand how persuasive language positions them as an audience, but also the deeper, more complex layers of bias and political leanings that underpin the media they consume.  

As an English teacher, I considered training my students to understand the cultural and political spectrum that sits alongside our media landscape as a crucial life skill.

Stephanie Wescott

In 2021, we are deep within the era of post-truth, and the COVID pandemic has offered rich opportunities for misinformation to flourish online. We must focus specifically on preparing young people to understand the Australian media landscape, not only as an essential component of their literacy education, but as a life skill. 

Stephanie Wescott is a PhD candidate at Monash University Faculty of Education, researching policy and practice in the post-truth era.

Adults made the mess and should clean it up

By Naomi Barnes, Queensland University of Technology

The challenge to become critical creators of content should not just extend to those who intend to join the media industry but to all users of social media who are all involved in the production and consumption of media every day. These are the grown-ups. 

The adults made the mess: Zuckerberg, Murdoch, Morrison, Trump and the rest. Adults created the content, including the algorithms, consumed the cat pictures and shared the misinformation. As Steven Watson and I recently demonstrated, adults also deliberately engage in populist tactics designed to pit one group against another. Adults need to be responsible for cleaning up the mess that led to last week’s moves by Facebook. That begins with critical media literacy. 

Critical consumption of content should also show that a lot of the noise about the evils of social media drowns out examples of the good that happens on the platforms. Many groups, like IndigenousX, already engage in the critical production of media content and we should be looking to them for models of how to interact and produce online content. Social media has also provided outlets for people to keep connected during the pandemic but has long been there for those who are housebound due to trauma or disability. Social media has also been instrumental in putting social issues on the map.

We should also note that children are already involved in the critical production of content so positioning media literacy as something for the kids to learn ignores a lot they already know. Young people are already breaking apart old structures of education. What else is the school strike for climate except young people declaring that school is too didactic and not critically active? As Greta Thunberg challenges adults to clean up the climate mess they made, so too should adults take the time to be informed and critical creators and focus on cleaning up their online act while they are critiquing Facebook’s.

Naomi Barnes is a lecturer in Literacy, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology

Review of Kid Reporter

By Peter Greste, University of Queensland

One of the paradoxes of modern life – and one we were forced to confront last week – is that in a world where we suffocate under a firehose of information whenever we open our smart phones, it is becoming harder and harder to find trustworthy news.

Facebook’s decision to ban links to Australian news services, over its row with the Australian Government’s News Media Bargaining Code, created what one critic described as a ‘fact-free zone’. That might be a bit harsh on all the other well-meaning businesses, clubs and organisations who rely on the social media giant to communicate with their followers, but it did force us to confront some increasingly vexing questions: How do we distinguish quality news from the bad stuff? What would our world look like without reliable, trustworthy news services?

And what really is ‘news’ anyway?

Even a megasaurus the size of Facebook, with its banks of nerds and vast technical resources, struggled to define it. They not only blocked the usual suspects like ABC News, The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald; they also took down the pages of the Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia’s fire and emergency services, and a host of seemingly random non-news organisations including my own School of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland.

That is why the book, Kid Reporter, by Saffron Howden and Dhana Quinn, feels so timely. (Subtitled, “the secret to breaking news” it ought to have instant appeal to any kid with a rebellious streak; coincidentally exactly the kind of trait that often makes a great journalist.)

As they point out in the introduction, the book isn’t just for budding reporters. It works for anyone who cares about what is going on in the world around them, and anyone who consumes the media. In this digized world, that means just about everyone.

The book provides a thorough, thoughtful and easily digestible toolkit for any young reporter, with plenty of takeaways and tips for identifying what a news story looks like, how to gather information, and put it all together into a finished product. None of that ought to be a surprise though, especially from a pair who both have admirable careers as journalists

themselves. But its real value is in the way it asks all its readers – the grown-ups included – to approach the far wider subject of ‘news’, both as producers and consumers.

“One of the best ways to learn about the media is to become a media creator yourself,” Howden and Quinn write. “If you know how to find accurate information for your own news story, you are far more likely to know if another person’s work is based on facts… There’s almost no chance you’ll be fooled by ‘fake news’ again.”

For me, the book really gains traction in Part III, “How to be a news detective”. It takes a deep dive into the kind of approach that experienced journalists would be expected to bring to their craft, and that seems to be missing in far too many newsrooms. The approach is rooted in the philosophy of critical thinking, asking its readers to not only question and confirm basic facts, but also to think about things like the motives of the people presenting information; its context and purpose; the difference between opinion, fact and analysis; and the authenticity of apparently conclusive photographic evidence.

(Coincidentally, creating a media literacy program with critical thinking at its heart, is also the approach that a group of colleagues and I have taken in designing a journalism course for high school students.. More news on that soon.)

As a journalist with more than 30 years of experience, I thought I knew my craft well. But I am humble enough to admit that even I learned a thing or two from the vivid examples that Howden and Quinn give their readers, and the approach they ask them to bring to the business of assessing and presenting information.

You don’t need to be a budding journalist to find Kid Reporter worthwhile though. It is illuminating for anyone who wants to understand what quality journalism should look like. Mark Zuckerberg would do well to grab a copy.

UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication, School of Communication and Arts,  Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Queensland

Extract from:

Kid Reporter: The Secret to Breaking News

by Saffron Howden and Dhana Quinn


It’s time to get out the magnifying glass. Before you can call yourself a reporter, you need to understand where information comes from, how it’s created, how it’s understood and what’s done with it. Journalists are critical thinkers. That means turning over every bit of evidence, examining it, and then making an informed decision about its value.

We looked at sources [later in the book] but now we need to dive deeper. How do you tell the difference between a rumour, a lie and a fact? When does a statement become an opinion? Is it okay to have various perspectives, or points of view, on the same event?

People have different ideas about the world. These are formed by family and friends, school, culture, heritage, religion, community, even government. All these influences on your life affect the way you see information and how you pass it on. And that is the same for every person in the world.

Being aware of this helps us appreciate other people and respect their views, even when we disagree. It helps us understand our own perspectives and lets us sort through and share information in a fairer, truthful way.


To be media literate involves knowing the difference between reliable and unreliable sources, being able to fact-check claims and spot fake news and advertisements.

Developing these skills is an important part of being an engaged and informed citizen in the 21st century.

Who said what and why?

All forms of knowledge come from somewhere. Information includes any and all details about a situation, person, thing or event. But someone has to create that information, whether it’s written, spoken, in a report, part of a video or in a graphic.

As a news detective you have to find out who created it, try to understand why it was produced and identify the target – who the creator wants to reach with the information.

These are clues to help us understand all messages. And their meaning can change depending on their context.

Kid Reporter: The Secret to Breaking News by Saffron Howden and Dhana Quinn, published by NewSouthPress