Tackling false information – a BBC School Report initiative

Author: Mark Frankel, Social Media Editor, BBC News

To coincide with the BBC’s annual School Report event (15 March), Mark Frankel, Social Media Editor for BBC News, writes exclusively for the Observatory for a Connected Society on their new initiative to help school children understand the nature and impact of fake news and misinformation.

Ubiquitous, often unhelpfully so, the phrase “Fake News” was judged Collins dictionary word of the year in 2017. It led the Guardian to the wonderful proclamation: Fake News is ‘very real’ word of the year for 2017.

At the BBC we prefer to think of misinformation and hold to the definition of fake news as “false information distributed deliberately, usually for political or commercial purposes". We’re proud that BBC News has a Reality Check service, which regularly subjects the claims of public figures and institutions to rigorous factual checking and presents the results in an impartial and transparent way. In recent months, the service has subjected many of the Government and Opposition claims on Brexit to close scrutiny, as well as analysing the facts on charity donations, plastic recycling and the UK’s weather patterns, particularly in relation to snow.

But we’re keen to do more. We’d like to focus particularly on our audiences of the future, to help them navigate a path through the ever-increasing tide of unmediated information. In an age of misinformation and half-truths, amplified by social media algorithms, it’s vital that young people – many of whom will be the journalists and opinion-formers of the future – have the digital news literacy to distinguish fact from fiction.

Recent research has underlined the scale of the challenge. According to Ofcom, eight out of ten children between the ages of 12-15 now have their own smartphone, with online media, from any source, at their fingertips. Yet a National Literacy Trust report found that one child in five believes that everything they read online is true. It recommends that, for children and young people to identify fake news and be able to take full advantage of the unique learning opportunities the internet and digital technologies have to offer, they need strong critical literacy skills. Research for BBC Newsround, carried out in partnership with Salford University, supports this. In a year-long study of 9-14 year-olds' awareness of fake news, the researchers found that the majority of their interaction with news and fake news is online. Even though many of these children said they were aware that these stories are not always reliable, they actually struggle to recognise false information when confronted with stories that contain it. Senior Lecturer, Beth Hewitt, says children as young as 10 should be taught in school how to recognise “fake news”.

Late last year, former director of BBC News and Current Affairs, James Harding, announced a new initiative by our media literacy project, BBC School Report – a collaboration between BBC Academy and BBC News, to support young people in this important endeavour.

As part of that initiative BBC News has collaborated with Academy Award-winning animation studios Aardman to create an online interactive game. The game, which gives players the unique experience of being a BBC journalist in the heart of a busy newsroom, will be launched for the first time as part of BBC School Report News Day on March 15th. This brilliant interactive experience provides students with an engaging perspective on false news. Participants are thrust into the midst of a breaking news story on their first day as a BBC journalist. Which sources should they trust? How will they react? When is it time to be cautious and when is it time to be forthright?

The game is a test of skill and judgement and designed to complement additional training and mentoring being offered by BBC journalists.

Kicking off on School Report Day, one thousand secondary schools and sixth forms across the U.K will be offered mentoring – in class, online or at events, from BBC journalists such as Huw Edwards, Tina Daheley, Nikki Fox, Kamal Ahmed and Amol Rajan. In schools, this will be focused on a short classroom course, delivered by BBC journalists, on key principles for identifying/understanding ‘fake news’ and we will then work in tandem with schools and colleges to develop further training workshops and teaching resources.

A roadshow will tour the country and local schools will be able to nominate their own pupils to attend one of a dozen regional events. Some will be invited to present their ideas and content to BBC editorial teams.

The BBC’s Reithian values lie at the heart of this project. In this frequently dystopian age, where information is too often manipulated and served directly to our mobile phones, via a dizzying array of social media algorithms and uninvited alerts, we all need to be better equipped to determine fact from fiction, the truth from misinformation.

Our modest hope and ambition is that a mix of carefully judged interactive classroom training and exercises will help students with a healthy interest in news journalism and could be incorporated by teachers into relevant course work too. There are no easy solutions to what has become a highly toxic environment but education is clearly a big part of the answer.


If you’re a member of staff at a UK secondary school, sixth form, or youth group working with 11 – 18 year olds and would like to find out how you can get involved and kept informed in this initiative please click here.