Critiquing Today’s Media Content
We are bombarded daily by information through online sources, TV, radio, print and social media, but how do we know if what we read or hear is accurate or factual?

It is easy to be swayed into believing something if it is repeated often enough, if it is in print or comes from someone we admire or respect. This might not be a problem in some circumstances, but in order to make informed decisions or access information about issues that are important to us it is imperative that the sources we rely on are accurate. 

When researching any topic, the internet has become the main port of call. The term ‘google’ has entered the dictionary as a verb meaning ‘to search for something on the internet using the Google search engine’.

There are a number of similar search engines which all connect us to a seemingly limitless wealth of data. But how do we determine what is a credible source of information, especially when information and news is being sourced online? The expression ‘fake news’ is becoming increasingly popular and it is difficult to filter through all the sources online to find what is credible and what is fake. The aim of this WebQuest is to support learners to develop their critical thinking skills so that they can be applied to critiquing today’s media content.
To help to develop your critical thinking skills, you are required to work as part of a team, and pick a current news topic related to International Relations in the Middle East.  Working in your small group of 3 or 4 people, you may choose to focus on the on-going Civil War in Syria, the alleged use of Chemical Weapons by Bashar al-Assad, the Iran Nuclear Deal, the rise of ISIS, or some other news item that is of interest to your group.  Once the news topic has been identified, you and your group are instructed to find an article or video that reports this news topic on each of the following media channels:

· BBC News
· RT – Russia Today
· Al Jazeera English
· Vox – Understand the News (Online Source)
· Fox News
· CNN International

As a group, you will review these news reports.  Once all news channels have been reviewed, your group will then make a list of what is similar and what is different in each of the media reports.  Through a group discussion with your peers, you will identify which media outlet you believe most, and which you think is ‘fake news’.  You will then identify what the different ‘agendas’ are from the different media outlets, what sources were used in the media reports and if you believe these are ‘credible’.  Once your group has completed these tasks, and from a review of all you have read and seen from the various media outlets, as a group, you are required to write a short synopsis of the news topic, highlighting what you all think has actually taken place in this news story. At the end, you will have to present this to other groups in your class.
Step 1: What is ‘fake news’?
‘Fake news’ is a term that entered into the public domain during the 2016 US Presidential Election. 
It was first coined by now President Donald Trump to describe how Russian meddling into the election campaign was being reported by mass media outlets in the US.  Today, ‘fake news’ is a catch-all phrase that is used widely in society to describe inaccuracies in the reporting, but also to discredit news reports which may present a viewpoint that is in contrast to a personal view of an individual or that is contradictory to the stance of a political party, for example. While there is media manipulation, and while the spread of online news and media has led to there being instances of genuine ‘fake news’; the term is being widely used today to discredit any news story or opinion that people don’t agree with, and this is a dangerous development because it means that people are allowed to form and hold narrow opinions, and not have their viewpoints challenged.

To read more on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, the following articles discuss what it is, where it came from and why it’s dangerous:

To help you to develop the skills to identify ‘fake news’, take this short ‘fake news quiz’ developed by University College Dublin:

Step 2: Identifying the ‘agenda’
An ‘agenda’ is a secret aim or reason for doing something. No matter what the subject is, everyone has an agenda; the politician who is looking for votes, the entrepreneur who wants to sell you something, the charity that wants you to support their cause, they all want to persuade you to adopt their way of thinking. Even media outlets have their own slant on issues and events depending on who controls the organisation.

We would like to believe that reporters are objective but every writer has an agenda and will use various persuasive tactics to get you to their way of thinking, often actively misleading the reader. Even if they give the facts of a situation they might omit some of them to influence your perception of events. When you know that America’s CBS News is conservative and ABC News liberal, it is easier to understand their reporting on various news items.

Most outlets in any country will lean one way or another or have a ‘for’ or ‘against’ stance on social and political issues. To get an accurate picture of events you need to look at an issue from every angle rather than from a single perspective.

The existence of media agendas is so well known that there is an ‘agenda setting theory’ that has been widely researched and written about by researchers and universities. Here are some links to some of these articles on the topic:

With all this in mind, it is important to check out the author of the source. Who are they, what is their expertise on the subject, are they sponsored by any company, organisation or political party, what is their agenda? Answering these questions will help you to ascertain the agendas of the different media outlets in this activity.

Step 3: Techniques used by Media Outlets to distort the ‘news’
We will now introduce you to some key techniques that media outlets use to try and distort our understanding of the news.  Please review the following links to learn more about these techniques:
·  Understanding ‘parroting’
‘Parroting’ is when a piece of information is repeated over and over leading to people believing it to be true. It is important to ascertain where a piece of information originated as the person who gave you the information might be a trusted and respected person but their source might be unreliable.

In recent times, many news outlets and channels in the US in particular have been found guilty of ‘parroting’:

· Reality Check: Why These News Anchors Are Parroting the Same Script (VIDEO):

· FakeNews Mainstream Media Clones Caught Repeating Each Other Word for Word! Unbelievable (VIDEO): 

· Trump Just Walks Around Parroting Fox News All Day (VIDEO):

· What is click-bait?

Headlines can often be misleading or sensational in order to attract readers to click on the link – this is known as ‘click-bait’ and it is probably all over your Facebook newsfeed.  With the growth in ‘click-bait’ links, it is important that you investigate the full story before allowing headlines to shape your view on a topic; but it is also important to understand what ‘click-bait’ is and why advertisers and media outlets use it.  

To understand what ‘click-bait’ is, you can find some common definitions and examples on at these links:

To understand why media outlets and channels use ‘click-bait’ and how it is contributing to the spread of fake news, these links provide some interesting examples:

For more information on the key features of ‘click-bait’, the information on these links can help you to identify it online:

Step 4: Tips for finding credible sources – how do you know what is real or fake?
Check the Website that the information has originated from. Is there information about the website contributors and contact information? What is the mission or ethos of the website?  Is the information updated regularly?

The name of a website that has produced the information is often an indication of how credible it is. Websites such as the Mayo clinic and WebMD are known to provide information from leading experts in the medical field. Websites with .edu or .gov are most likely to be authentic and credible websites. Don’t rely on Facebook posts, blogs, vlogs and other self-penned sites for factual, unbiased information unless you are sure of the author’s credentials and expertise on the subject.

Articles and information with attached academic sources which support the content are better than those without. Academic sources can be relied upon for accuracy as the research that contributes to the information is usually carried out in an objective, scientific manner and the credibility of the academic institution attached to the research is at stake.

Websites such as Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, have sources attached to information which can be checked and verified but it is important to note that information can be edited by anyone using the website.  

Step 5: What’s the verdict?
Now that you have reviewed all of the different media outlets, it is time to debate how the news story was reported with your group.  After you have debated and negotiated with your peers, you will be required to write a synopsis of what you think is the truth of what happened in your news story. 

When you have written your synopsis, your group will present the synopsis to other groups in your class.  In your presentation, you will outline:
· The news topic you chose.
· The media outlet which you thought was most credible and your justification for this choice.
· The media outlet that you thought was spreading ‘fake news’ and your justification for this.
· The synopsis of what your group thinks actually happened.
Evaluation and Learning Outcomes
On the completion of this webquest, the learner will be able to:

Skills Knowledge Attitudes
· Factual knowledge of the key definition of ‘fake news’
· Factual knowledge of the definition of ‘agenda’, ‘parroting’ and ‘click-bait’
· Fundamental knowledge of media manipulation
· Basic knowledge of how to research online media sources
· Basic knowledge of credible media and information sources
· Identify common techniques used by media outlets – agenda, parroting, click-bait, etc.
· Use critical thinking skills to determine the source of media content
· Use deductive reasoning skills to write the summary of a news item
· Research one news item across several media outlets
· Research online to critique the accuracy of reporting in the media.
· Apply negotiation skills in group work
· Use group-work skills to work effectively with your peers
· Use group presentation skills to present a summary to the group.
· Become more aware of how media content can be manipulated
· Question the source of media content
· Question if the media outlet has an agenda
· Appreciate how the same news stories can be presented differently
· Be open to the opinions and views of others

When the IT revolution began in earnest, in the latter part of the 20th Century, the issue of digital inclusion
was almost always a question of access; the ‘digital divide’ essentially referring to those who had access to technology and those who did not. With the merging of different technologies and the ensuing emergence of the smartphone, the latest or updated version of the ‘digital divide’ now refers almost exclusively to the issue of digital literacy. While there is no doubt that people today have access to technology; the key question is whether they can manage and interpret the ensuing information and communication overload appropriately?

We live in a world where the influence of mass media on individuals and on society is unprecedented due to the pervasiveness of social media platforms. Critical thinking skills to enable individuals to function and participate in a digital world are now the key measurement of digital literacy and digital inclusion.

In times when mainstream print and television media were the staples, journalism was a very specialised field with a limited number of qualified people actively engaged and responsible for bringing the latest news to our attention. While journalists and reporters, and the organisations and editors they serve, have always had their own particular subjectivity, these tended to follow well established conservative or liberal; capitalist or socialist demarcations and were known for their obvious bias. In today’s digital and social media reality anyone can be a ‘journalist’; collecting, writing and distributing news or other current information to the general public. But how accurate are their accounts of events? For this reason, it is important that we develop our critical thinking skills so that we can discern the accuracy of what the news reports to us – so that we know what is fact and what is fiction.