Critically literate

Fake News vs School Libraries 

Julian McDougall places school libraries and an effective programme of media literacy in the front line to confront and counter ‘fake news’.

Literacy and citizenship

In 1957, Richard Hoggart wrote “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.”

The world young people live in now, during both a pandemic and the era of ‘post-truth’, is at once more complex, in terms of what we mean by community and how we make a contribution. It is also more in need of the next generation’s capacity to make positive change. Young people don’t just need to be ‘media literate’, they must have the opportunities as a result of their education, to use their media literacies for good.

Bournemouth University and the School Library Association

During the past few years, my research centre at Bournemouth University has been working on several projects exploring the potential for media literacy to develop resilience in the face of misinformation, or ‘fake news’. An unexpected fork in the road was presented by the inclusion of the School Library Association (SLA) as a stakeholder group for this research. It became apparent through our dialogue with the SLA that the school library generates the kind of ‘third space’, between the first space of young people’s immersion in media and the second space of education, where they are enabled to develop the kind of critical mindset Hoggart cites as a democratic pre-requisite.

The importance of libraries

The UNESCO Declaration on Media and Information emphasises the role of libraries and this role has been coherently mapped on the UK scene in the Great School Libraries campaign which notes that there is strong evidence to suggest that school libraries

“Deliver and teach essential Information/critical literacy skills to combat fake news and engender independent learning”

What are the kind of information and critical literacy skills we should be interested in? The Library and Information Association offer their own definition of ‘information literacy’ which includes digital and media literacies and aligned knowledge and understanding. They emphasise

“the critical capacity to read between the lines, to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments and develop perspective and judgement.”

Two sides of the literacy coin

Over sixty years ago, in The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart reflecting on his own community, observed the ways in which the public were starting to use ‘mass literacy’ for self-improvement and how education led to social mobility and civic engagement. On the flipside, he could see that these same literacy affordances were of use to commercial and political agents, seeking to ‘use’ the literacy of ‘the masses’ for their own agendas.

This double sided coin of literacy is still in play in 2021, in the era of ‘information disorder’ and ‘fake news’. Our research at Bournemouth has been working through the kinds of media literacy we need to deal with our new, and ever changing  information and data ecosystem, which has become even more precarious during the pandemic.

It can be argued that school libraries are more important than ever during this state of ‘information disorder’. This is why the professionals who work in them were key stakeholder groups for research into media literacy as a response to ‘fake news’, funded by the US Embassy and then extended into a review for the UK Government’s Online Harms policy development.


New research and a plea

Our US Embassy funded research, with input from the School Library Association, led to a comprehensive field review, the convening of multi-stakeholder workshops in London, Hong Kong and Moscow, a toolkit of media literacy resources for dealing with fake news (all online, open access) and a book, published by Palgrave. The key recommendation was that media literacy education needs, as a matter of the utmost urgency, to be established as an entitlement for all students in all schools.

This could most obviously be in the form of making Media Studies mandatory, but if that is not palatable, then a cross-curricular media literacy programme would do the job. This would develop resilience in young citizens to misinformation much better than more reactive, quick fixes which might take the form of fact-checking and verification tools or even small-scale projects to train competences rather than harness critical thinking. The difference here is between ‘giving a fish’, and ‘teaching to fish’.

The space for this work: the school library

So, if we are to do this outside of or across the curriculum, then we need a rich, agentive third space for this work. Enter the school library.

Working with the SLA, through webinars and their annual weekend conference, we’ve foregrounded a set of resources from our toolkit which we can use in this third space, to link back to school subjects (the ‘second space’) whilst drawing on students’ ‘first space’ funds of media knowledge. Meanwhile, Cathal Coyle (2020) has also provided materials for this work in his guidelines for the Association.

In the early stages of the pandemic, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world was not only fighting coronavirus “but our enemy is also the growing surge of misinformation”. Therefore, media literacy in the time of covid is situated at an intersection between its value as an educational innoculation against misinformation in general and the urgency of a rapid response to misinformation about the virus. Media literacy in this context takes on a role in public health.

Libraries in the front line

And so, another obvious metaphor for this is to think about equipping young people with critical media literacy as being a preventative vaccine, while trying to react to fake news after the event as being like an antibiotic or antiviral medicine. Unlike where we were at the start of the covid pandemic, we actually have all the resources in place – the research to show us what works; capacity in the school library and the young people with existing ‘antibodies’ from their exposure to media. This would make the school library a ‘front line of defence’. We just need to join things up and get started.


Julian McDougall is Professor in Media and Education, Head of the Centre for Excellence in Media Practice and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

He edits Media Practice and Education, runs the Professional Doctorate (Ed D) in Creative and Media Education at Bournemouth University and convenes the annual International Media Education Summit. He is a Patron of the School Library Association.




Images by kind permission of Palgrave MacMillan and Minuteworks.


Further Reading:

Julian McDougall: Fake News v Media Studies

For more about the research project led by Julian McDougall, see