News can be defined as “as any accurate information that facilitates decision-making on both personal and social issues, thus enabling people to more effectively engage with society” (Vraga et al., 2020, p. 2). The Internet has profoundly impacted the way young Australians participate in society, including how they engage with news. Digital platforms rival traditional media, such as television, for young people’s attention when it comes to accessing both information and entertainment. In this context, news is produced and circulated rapidly via an ever-growing number of social media platforms, while social media users encounter news from a range of sources, often while news events are still unfolding. Social media platforms increasingly play a role in determining how young people access and engage with news and are redefining news; changing the way it looks, feels and is experienced (Clark & Marchi, 2017). In Australia 38% of children (aged 8–12 years) report receiving news from social media often or sometimes, while 75% of teens report this (Notley et al., 2020). The pace of collaborative news curation and sharing through social media makes verifying sources and checking claims complicated (Bruns & Highfield, 2015). In addition, there is evidence that complex and sophisticated methods and strategies are used to circulate disinformation online, which is often presented as news, with the overall concept of ‘news’ becoming increasingly contested and unstable (Bruns, 2019, p. 11). This has led to a number of flashpoints for claims and counterclaims about ‘fake news’ at critical moments during elections, natural disasters, acts of terrorism and most recently, during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Researchers, policymakers and educators have argued that media literacy education has the potential to prepare young people so that they are capable o2020f identifying, dismissing and addressing misinformation when they encounter it (for example see Vraga & Tully, 2019; Jones-Jang et al., 2021; McGrew, ). In addition, some scholars have argued that news media literacy can reduce the impact of racial and ethnic stereotypes evident in news media content (Scharrer & Ramasubramanian, 2015), which has profound relevance following the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the United States and around the world, including in Australia. Some studies show a link between young people being able to engage critically with news and their increased engagement in a range of civic activities (Martens & Hobbs, 2015; Mihailidis, 2008). News literacy education can also increase young people’s interest in news, which in turn can expand their interest in local and world events and their participation in society more broadly (Buckingham, 2000; Mihailidis, 2008; Clark & Marchi, 2017).
At this critical juncture, it is essential that we understand the efforts already being made in schools to educate young Australians about news media. Very little research has been conducted about how news is integrated into Australian schools, and there has been little exploration of the extent to which teachers feel able and supported to teach students about the news. One insight into the amount of news being taught in schools comes from two nationally representative surveys of young Australians’ (8–16 years) news practices conducted in 2017 and 2020. The 2020 findings show that while following the news is important to half of young Australians (49%) and most young people consume news regularly from multiple sources, only 1 in 5 (20%) reported having any lessons to help them to ‘decide whether news stories are true and can be trusted’ and this had not changed since 2017. One in three (34%) young people had received at least one lesson to help them create their own news stories (Notley et al., 2017, 2020).
To address the gap in knowledge about how news is taught in Australian schools, this article outlines survey findings from 295 Australian teacher respondents. They were asked about their attitudes towards teaching news literacy, their classroom practices and the challenges they face in including news education in the classroom. This was followed by interviews with 20 of the survey respondents. The research is timely given that the 2019 Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Digital Platforms Inquiry (ACCC, 2019) emphasises the importance of ‘digital media literacy’ education in schools and recommends that the terms of reference for the review of the Australian Curriculum scheduled for 2020–2021 include a consideration of the approach to digital media literacy education in Australian schools.
Australia has one of the few international media literacy curriculum policies in the form of Media Arts in the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2018), which provides a framework for teaching media production and critical media analysis from pre-school through to Year 10. News media are mentioned several times in the Media Arts curriculum content descriptors and elaborations. In addition, media literacy has a significant presence in the Australian Curriculum, English (ACARA, 2020), which references information and media as core text types for students’ consideration. The English curriculum points to news and newspaper examples several times in content elaborations for students in Years 6–10. News is also covered in some State curriculum documents in other, non-direct ways. For instance, for the Victorian Certificate of Education, English, students are required to study ‘Issues’ and this often results in students focussing on news-based issues and text types. It is encouraging that the news is either directly or indirectly studied in English because the English curriculum is compulsory for most students throughout their schooling, while Media Arts is elective in secondary schools. A complicating factor, though, is that Australian Curriculum content elaborations are illustrative rather than being ‘core’ or compulsory, and Australia’s states and territories are responsible for implementing the curriculum, meaning the national curriculum is implemented in various ways across the country. In addition, different structures and practices exist in primary and secondary schools, and this leads to further variation and complexity in how news might be offered in different kinds of classrooms. It is quite possible, then, for news to be studied in depth in some classrooms and schools and not others, according to teacher, school and State preferences.
It is notable that Australia has a long history of media literacy education. In the late 1940s, William Perkins, an academic at the University of Tasmania, promoted film appreciation as part of the Tasmania English Curriculum, and in the early 1960s he wrote a textbook ‘Tasmanian English for Citizens’ which included a section on newspapers (Perkins, 1963). In the 1950s, the University of Melbourne’s N.H. Rosenthal developed a film and media textbook for schools (Rosenthal, 1953). In 1969, the journal ‘English in Australia’ included a special issue on ‘Mass Media and Television’ (Watts, 1969), drawing attention to media literacy as a scholarly concern. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s the media teacher’s association—first called Australian Teachers of Film Appreciation, and later Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM)—supported a generation of English and Media teachers to support media literacy activities in the classroom, including the study of news. In addition to this, Australian English and Media textbooks produced in the 1970s included sections on ‘the press’ and newspapers (Dwyer, 1971; Barr, 1977). Finally, starting in the late 1970s, most Australian States’ curriculum authorities or Departments of Education published Media curriculum policies and resources, often including a section on news media (see for instance: Western Australian Department of Education, 1979, 1982; South Australian Department of Education, 1983; Ministry of Education, Victoria, 1983; NSW Department of Education, 1984; Queensland Education Department, 1985). The findings of our study should be understood against this background of substantial efforts in the past, and present, to support the teaching of media literacy, and news, in Australian classrooms.