Crinkling News editor Saffron Howden’s opening statement before the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism on May 17, 2017.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear today.

The role of the news media and journalism in civil society is most often considered in an adult context.

My own view is that we must take a much broader approach to the challenges currently facing journalism and the impact those challenges are having on democracy and the ability of individuals to make informed decisions as citizens.

In order to address the creeping influence of ‘fake news’, so-called ’alternative facts’, ‘click bait’ and the selection by social media platforms of the information to which we are exposed, we need to start educating children at a young age. In short, we need to develop media literacy in Australia.

There is not a great deal of literature or research on the subject that is specific to Australia, but I would draw the committee’s attention to a study published in November last year by Stanford University in the United States, which hints at the scale of the problem among children and young people.

School students in Years 6, 7 and 8 were surveyed as part of the study. Alarmingly, 80 per cent of them could not tell the difference between sponsored content and a real news story.

If I can quote from that study:

Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

End of quote.

I have a printed copy of the Stanford study summary with me today and I am happy to hand that to the committee for reference.

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Young people in today’s world are bombarded with information – through multiple social media platforms, television, phones, tablets, websites and from their parents, peers, teachers and other adults.

At the moment we are doing little to help them work out what information they can trust to be factual, balanced and fair. Quality journalism produced especially for children can play a big part in addressing this problem.

We should be exposing children and young people to age-appropriate news that engages and involves them from a young age. In doing so, we can teach them the difference between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news, show them what credible sources look like, what bias looks like, and what fair reporting looks like.

The OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher, was recently reported as saying schools should be teaching students about ‘fake news’.

I quote: “In the past, when you needed information, you went to an encyclopaedia … and you could trust that the information would be true.”

He went on to say: ”Exposing fake news, being aware that there is something like fake news, that there is something that is not necessarily true, that you have to question, think critically – that’s a very important task.”

End of quote.

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We need to acknowledge the obvious – namely, that children become adults expected to engage as citizens, exercise their right to vote, make decisions about how best to spend their money, get jobs and take part in public policy debates.

In order to do this, they need to be able to tell the difference between an advertisement, or propaganda, and real news designed to inform them about what is going on in their world.

Education and engagement are the best weapons against fake news and the best chance for quality journalism to endure and thrive.

Ms Howden appeared before the committee with Crinkling News junior reporters Grace Gregson, 10, and Diya Mehta, 15.

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