Guest post: ‘Literacy versus Fake News: Critical Thinking, Resilience and Civic Engagement’ project

Dr. Julian McDougall is the Head of the Centre for Media Practice (CEMP) at the University of Bournemouth. He runs a doctoral programme for teachers, edits a journal – Media Practice and Education, and convenes an international conference each year called the Media Education Summit. In this post he talks about fake news and disinformation, discussing a CEMP project addressing this and highlighting the project toolkit that was developed to deal with it.

As many as possible of the citizens of a democracy must be not only literate but critically literate if they are to behave as full citizens. (Hoggart, 2004: 189)

I run a research centre at Bournemouth University (CEMP) and teach and write about media education and media literacy. I also run a doctoral programme for teachers, edit a journal and convene an international conference each year (The Media Education Summit). More on all this is on the CEMP site.  

Recently, CEMP have published the outcomes of an ethnography funded by the United States Embassy in London, consisting of a field review, 25 interviews and four multi-stakeholder workshops, bringing together and capturing dialogue between media educators, journalists, students and information professionals, to address the educational response to ‘fake news’ and disinformation.

25 interviews with media educators and journalists were transcribed and analysed for key discursive patterns. Participative workshops were held at the Media Education Summit in Hong Kong, the English and Media Centre in London, the National Higher Research University in Moscow and Loughborough University’s campus at Olympic Park, London.  The total sample, including the interviews and participants in the workshops, is 88, across the four stakeholder groups.

See the project site for the field review, workshop videos, presentations, participant blog, report, recommendations and the ‘top ten’ toolkit of media literacy resources selected by the stakeholders for dealing with fake news. In the Autumn, I have a book on all this coming out, published by Palgrave MacMillan, and at the end of the year, another project, on the Uses of Media Literacy, going back to Richard Hoggart’s work to think about class, culture, literacy and media in 2019, will be ready for circulation. I’ll be sharing that work at the JCS Conference in Birmingham in November.

CEMP Project image 'Educators' displaying the message Help your pupils to become fake news detectives
CEMP Project image – ‘Educators’. Reproduced with permission from CEMP

At the major event in London, with additional sponsorship from the Media Education Association, two days of activities in London at the Olympic Park on 15th and 16th March 2019 brought together the four stakeholder groups for a public event consisting of keynote presentations and a panel comprised of the US and UK academics involved in the project – Professor David Buckingham, Professor Monica Bulger, Professor Paul Mihaildis, Dr Karen Fowler-Watt and Dr Roman Gerodimos.

The workshop was designed to generate dialogue on four issues: (1) clarifying the problem (the apparent ‘information disorder’) from lived experience of the stakeholders; (2) identifying any competing or partly integrated discourses around the concept of trust in media and information; (3) evaluating a range of educational resources already in the world – we called this ‘testing the wheel’ and (4) agreeing on what media education can realistically do, to move beyond ‘solutionism’ (Buckingham, 2019) towards a more viable, modest proposal for Fake News vs Media Studies. Where do / can we have agency?

The link between media literacy, information literacy and the campaign to defend libraries in the UK context has been hitherto somewhat tangential, but this changed with this recent inclusion in the GSL campaign’s list of key library functions: Deliver and teach essential Information/critical literacy skills to combat fake news and engender independent learning. The Library and Information Association (2018) offer their own definition of ‘information literacy’ which includes digital and media literacies and aligned knowledge and understanding. This definition is articulated in five contexts, everyday life; citizenship; education; the workplace and health and it also signposts inter-professional collaboration, between information professionals and teachers, academic advisers and educational technologists. I am struck by the alignment of the definition with the specification objectives of Media Studies:

Information literacy can be seen as the critical capacity to read between the lines. It enables learners to engage in deep learning – perceiving relationships between important ideas, asking novel questions and pursuing innovative lines of thought. This active and critical way of learning encourages students to quickly master factual and descriptive elements of content (‘What’ and ‘How’) and then move on to investigate higher-level aspects such as source, degree of authority, possibility of bias, and what it means in the wider context. It is in line, for example, with the English National Curriculum aim to equip students, “to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments and develop perspective and judgement. (CILIP, 2018: 5)  

At this point it looks pretty clear that there’s a healthy situation already set out in UK schools. We have Media Studies, which does critical capacity, with an explicit focus on mediated information. And we have information professionals working on the same project. And it maps across well to the English National Curriculum. So, if we made Media Studies mandatory and brought in school librarians to support the underpinning information literacy, we’d be in a good place to tackle fake news. But the opposite is the case. Media Studies is taken by a small minority of students, seen as a ‘lightweight’ subject by politicians and the top Universities and often ridiculed by the media it is aiming to both critique and supply with a workforce.

CEMP project image called 'students'.
CEMP project image ‘students’. Reproduced with permission from CEMP


Teaching to Fish

Our project started out from the Data Research Institute’s 2018 report, that Media literacy has become a center of gravity for countering “fake news. (Bulger and Davison, 2018:3).  The report concluded with a set of open questions (2018: 21). Here, they are followed by our findings: 

  1. Can media literacy even be successful in preparing citizens to deal with fake news and information? Media Studies prepares citizens to take a critical, but not a cynical, approach to engagement with all media, including professional journalism, ‘mainstream media’ more broadly, and social media. So yes. 
  1. Which groups should be targeted for media literacy interventions? If our current problems are the work of ‘baby boomers’, then the civic engagement of young people in schools now is our priority so that, in the future, ‘the media’ is produced more ethically and consumed more critically. If every young person takes Media Studies in school, that seems like the starting point. 
  1. How can media literacy programs effectively address overconfidence in skills? This can manifest preemptively (individuals who feel they need no media literacy training) and reactively (individuals who overestimate the effectiveness of their media literacy training). Media Studies has a track record in working in the ‘third space’, fostering a porous exchange of critical, theoretical thinking (from teachers) and media engagement (from students).  
  1. Are traditional media literacy practices (e.g., verification and fact-checking) impractical in everyday media consumption? How can media literacy initiatives respond to the powerful systems of media il-literacy (e.g., clickbait, feed algorithms) which already condition individuals’ media behaviors?  Yes, instead of offering verification tools, we should think of critical media literacy, via Media Studies, as the best ‘toolkit’.
  1. How are groups committed to disinformation and propaganda able to harness the language of literacy and critical analysis to sow new distrust of media and establish adversarial political spaces? We need a focus on the ‘Uses of Media Literacy’ rather than a set of apparently neutral competences for citizens. Media Studies doesn’t necessarily do this, but it is closer to it than media literacy alone, as it has a critical, societal dimension.
  1. How will the overlapping efforts of media literacy stakeholders interact? Will new signals for trustworthiness aimed at limiting “fake news” backfire, producing new uncertainty around media messages?  This field ethnography, the set of interviews and the findings from the workshops culminate in a strong, multi-stakeholder consensus that Media Studies should be mandatory in schools. If every young people learns the key concepts of Media Studies – genre, narrative, representation, audience, ideology, and applies ‘classic’ deconstructive approaches to contemporary media texts, news content and technological developments in mediation, we will avoid both the false binary of ‘real vs fake’ and the danger of hyper-cynical distrust of all media. Media Studies puts media literacy to work in an academic context, connecting the study of media to questions of history, politics and ethics.

From these findings, we make the argument that critical media literacy, if adopted as a mandatory subject in schools and taught as a dynamic literacy education, would better equip young citizens with resilience to ‘information disorder’ (Wardle and Derekhshan, 2017) than reactive resources (such as fact-checking and verification tools) and small-scale projects which focus primarily on competences. The latter are described, metaphorically, as ‘giving a fish’, the former are described as ‘teaching to fish’. To use an alternative analogy, the former boosts the immune system, the latter treat the infection (see Rushkoff, 2018).

Both are needed, but ‘teaching to fish’ is the key recommendation, and, in the UK schools’ context, making Media Studies a mandatory subject would be the obvious starting point.

The workshop identified a ‘top ten’ of media literacy resources for dealing with information disorder. These include more holistic, critical media literacy activities (Teaching to Fish) – a more effective and sustainable approach than ‘giving a fish’ through fact-checking tools or surface level media / information literacy competences.

The data generated from the field review, interviews and workshops, taken together, lead us to the following three recommendations:

(1) Rather than producing competence frameworks for media literacy, as though it is a neutral set of skills for citizens, media education needs to enable students to apply the critical legacies of both Media Studies and literacy education on the contemporary media ecosystem;

(2) Media education must adopt a dynamic approach to media literacy and increase the experiential, reflexive aspects of media practice in the curriculum, with reciprocal transfer between the critical rhetorics above and creative media practice in order to respond, academically, to media as primarily a question of representation. In other words, resilience to representation is enhanced by expertise in representing.

(3) We need to add the critical exploration of social media, algorithms and big data to the media education curriculum, accompanied by applied practical learning in the uses of them for social justice, as opposed to training the next generation in the use of these for even further commercial and political exploitation of one another.

The Times Education Supplement picked up the recommendations and on social media, a bit of a campaign – Make Media Studies mandatory – is developing, which we’ll return to in September for the new school year.  

I encourage readers of this post to visit the toolkit we developed from this research, use the ‘top ten’ resources in your work and then think about the distinction we are drawing between giving a fish and teaching to fish. And if you agree that fact-checking tools and online media literacy resources can help young people to become more resilient to fake news, but in the long-term a better approach, he said, would be sustained media literacy provision in schools, then doesn’t it make sense to use Media Studies, linked to information literacy and the work of school librarians, to ‘get it done’?



Buckingham, D. (2019) ‘Teaching Media in a ‘Post-Truth’ Age: Fake News, Media Bias and the Challenge for Media / Digital Literacy Education’. Cultura y Educación, 31/2: 213-231.

Bulger, M. and Davison, P. (2018) The Promises, Challenges and Futures of Media Literacy.  New York: Data and Society Research Institute. 

CILIP (2018) Definition of Information Literacy 2018.

Hoggart, R. (2004) Mass Media in a Mass Society: myth and Reality. London: Continuum. 

Wardle, C. and Derakhshan, H. (2017) Information Disorder Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policymaking. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.


For more information on the project and the toolkit, please contact Dr. Julian McDougall

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *