Fiona Young Brown discusses the importance of media literacy education for both young and old.

Producer: Lauren Shields
08/29/2020 • 06:15 AM EST

Author of Fake News and Propaganda: Dilemmas in Democracy, Fiona Young-Brown talks about introducing critical thinking and media literacy education in the classroom early, the importance of cultivating those skills in elementary and middle-school students, and how to keep it relevant to that age group. She also touches on how building this awareness early on is vital to preserving an informed citizenry and sound democracy.

0:00: Lauren Shields:

With us today, we have Fiona Young-Brown, author of Fake News and Propaganda, a book aimed at young audiences. She has appeared in numerous magazines, such as BBC Earth, Atlas Obscura, and Mental Floss, and has written over a dozen books on everything from food and travel to aviation and great apes. Welcome Fiona.

0:17: Fiona Young-Brown:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

0:20: Lauren Shields:

You have written two books for young adults that deal with disinformation. Why did you write about these topics for this particular audience?

0:28: Fiona Young-Brown:

Well, I think it is part of a larger whole in that I'm a big believer in teaching critical thinking and the ability to think for yourself through a problem. And those are the kinds of skills that I think, whether you're in a math class, science class, English literature, or in this case, you know, some kind of media literacy, developing those skills is never going to be a waste of time. They will always be useful. And so, being able to look at something, analyze it, ask where it came from is just an excellent skill to have.

But more importantly, in terms of the media literacy, why middle school I think? Again, it's, I think it's better to teach it at an earlier age, before they go to college. I think once we get to college, a lot of times, A, we already have that kind of undergrad attitude of I know everything, which I know I certainly did. And I think then they're learning a lot then, but this makes their life so much easier, if they have already learned how to analyze, how to make sure that they don't hand in that first term paper and the professor gives it back and says, wait, you can't use somebodies personal blog as your expert source. And so, I just think it's one of those skills that can play over in so many areas.

2:07: Samy Amanatullah:

When do you think we should begin media literacy education? And what elements or what do you think media literacy curriculum should include?

2:19: Fiona Young-Brown:

As with all subjects, depending on how you teach it, you can start introducing aspects of it quite early. Even just simple things like, you know, which of these pictures looks like it might not be real. I mean, that's at a very basic level to get kids starting to think about Internet hoaxes and how things can be changed. Just something as simple as that. And let's look at that. Let's talk about that. And even teaching them sort of basic photo-editing things. I mean, every kid I know has probably picked up way more photo-editing skills than I will ever have, by the time they enter middle school. But those again are the kind of things that they will already enjoy doing, but then showing them how, well, what happens if you change this? And then what happens if someone believes that?

So, I think you can actually start talking about it in elementary school and middle school, and then sort of take it from there, develop it more, again tying it in with what issues are concerning to the kids at their particular age? What things are bothering them? Again, keeping it relevant and trying to tie the skills in, in that way. In terms of how would I teach it? I would defer to the teachers for that.

3:49: Lauren Shields:

In your book, Fake News and Propaganda, you give us some great practical steps for detecting fake news. What advice would you give to people who struggle to tell fake or disingenuous content from actual news?

4:05: Fiona Young-Brown:

The one thing that I always start with is look at the source. And that's not always going to tell us everything, but at the same time, it's always a good starting point. Look at the source. Where did it come from? Obviously if, the example I used to give some of my students, if you're going to cite this article saying that this new drug is absolutely fantastic and can cure everything, but the article was written by the company who invented it, then what do you think about that? You know, do you think they're going to be a little bit biased? Now how about if it was written by a competitor, and they're telling you it can't do anything? And so looking at the source and starting to think.

And another thing that I realized, it sounds so simple, but I think so often we don't notice it, is that advertising materials and news materials have now become so sort of intertwined in a lot of ways. And when we're looking at news sites and so on, that so often you can read a story and then notice in one tiny corner, it says advertorial, and you suddenly realize, wait, this isn't actually a reported news story. But then you wonder how many people have actually noticed that because it's become so difficult to discern between the two, a lot of times.

5:45: Lauren Shields:

In your book, you state that quote, and I love this quote, "when the free press is silenced through threats of being fake, it is not just information that is distorted, but democracy." Can you explain a little bit more what you mean by that?

6:01: Fiona Young-Brown:

I think one of the key ideas that I wanted to get through the book especially for anyone who says, well, what's the point? What does it matter if it's real or fake? It's all just, it's all horrible stuff. And so on. Is that for us to be a true democracy and to be truly the society that we claim to be, it's so important to be not just a voter, but an informed voter. And so part of that information is having access to different opinions, to news stories, to journalism, and so on. And not just having access to it, but also having access to the skills that allow us to look beyond the story or to at least be able to know, okay, is this what someone just wants us to think? Or is it real?

And so being able to look beyond that, I feel as if, if we're not informed and we can't trust, that's another part of it, being able to trust those sources, then we can't in turn consider ourselves truly informed about social issues, economic issues, and so on. And that in turn means that we really can't be informed citizens, informed voters, and an informed part of a democracy. I think democracy relies on the freedom of information and having access to that information.

7:43: Lauren Shields:

All right. Well, it looks like we're out of time for today. If you'd like to know more about Fiona young Brown's work, you can find her at, @fionayoungbrown, all lowercase on Twitter. You can also go to her website at Fiona, thank you so much for being with us today.

7:59: Fiona Young-Brown:

Thank you very much.

1. Fiona Young-Brown, Fake News and Propaganda (Dilemmas in Democracy). Cavendish Square. Published: 2019.