Teaching media literacy in social studies helps students become responsible citizens who can make informed decisions.

Media literacy is the ability to identify types of digital content, understand the messages they convey, and evaluate their sources. While children can quickly learn how to use new technology, educators have a responsibility to show them how to analyze the information they find online.

In Integrating Media Literacy in Social Studies Teacher Education, researchers Meghan Manfra and Casey Holmes outlined a five-step action plan for integrating media literacy into social studies teacher education. School leaders can use this same plan to train teachers to develop students’ media literacy skills.

Media literacy

Step 1: Connect media literacy with the purposes of social studies

Social studies education prepares students to become good citizens. For citizens to make reasoned decisions, they rely on news sources to gather information, according to Manfra and Holmes. Unfortunately, modern technology makes it easy for people to create and spread false or misleading stories.

In 2016, the Stanford History Education Group tested middle school, high school, and college students to see if they could differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. About 80% of the middle schoolers thought sponsored content was still a real news story, and over 90% of the high school and college students couldn’t tell a website was from a biased source. When shown a “news story” with photos, most students assumed the images proved the story’s credibility. They also didn’t question whether poll results posted on Twitter came from credible polling companies.

The same research group did another study in 2019 where they again observed whether students could identify misinformation. In that study, 52% of the students mistook a fake video as real, two-thirds couldn’t tell the difference between news stories and ads, and 96% did not consider who created a website and why; rather they looked at superficial markers such as the website’s appearance to judge its credibility.

Through media literacy education, educators can teach students how to differentiate between real and fake news. Teaching them this skill will prepare them to engage in civic matters. 

Step 2: Teach the history of fake news in the United States

Fake news is not a new phenomenon, Manfra and Holmes explained. History is full of examples of false news stories, from deliberate misleading information to downright hoaxes.

Paul Revere’s illustration of the Boston Massacre portrayed the British soldiers as the initiators when the colonists started the riot.

In 1835, the “Great Moon Hoax” appeared in the New York Sun claiming astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon. This six-part series even fooled scientists at Yale University, who traveled to New York City to see Herschel’s research.

Manfra and Holmes pointed out that during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, his secretary, John Hay, sent news stories with photographs to many newspapers to sway public opinion of Lincoln’s administration.

Going over these and other historic examples can help teachers explain to their students the connection between news media and public opinion.

Manfra and Holmes emphasized that teachers should explain these historic examples in their proper context to understand their political and socio-cultural impact and avoid presentism — interpreting past events with contemporary values.

Great Moon Hoax

Step 3: Cover the history of journalism and journalistic ethics

Give your teachers a solid background on the history of journalism in the United States using textbook materials or reliable online sources such as:

It also helps for teachers to know journalism ethics so they can teach students how news stories are (or should be) developed.

Encyclopedia.com gives a good overview of the history of journalism ethics. Many news organizations also share their ethical code or standards online:

Teachers can also benefit from reading the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and International Federation of Journalists Global Charter of Ethics of Journalists.   

Step 4: Analyze recent examples of fake news

One of the best ways teachers can develop students’ media literacy skills is by analyzing fake news articles with their class. Manfra and Holmes recommend school leaders model this for their teachers by going over recent examples of fake news. By doing so, they show teachers how to discuss misinformation while still respecting everyone’s political opinions.

While it’s okay to discuss mature content with your teachers, it’s always a good idea to keep any news media shared in the classroom age-appropriate. If teachers have a hard time finding fake news examples for elementary students, they can create their own using computer software.

It’s good for teachers to know that fake news sometimes comes from esteemed sources. In September 2002, BBC News published an article claiming scientists said natural blondes would die out in 200 years. However, the New York Times published an article the next month saying no scientists made such claims. Sharing these articles with teachers can open their eyes to how easily their students can be deceived and motivate them to teach media literacy effectively.

Fake News Media Literacy

Step 5: Teach how to detect fake news and misinformation

Before integrating media literacy into social studies, school leaders can offer their faculty quality educational training using these available resources:

    • Evidence – “Do the facts hold up?”
    • Source – “Who made this and can I trust them?”
    • Context – “What’s the big picture?”
    • Audience – “Who is the intended audience?”
    • Purpose – “Why was this made?”
    • Execution – “How is this information presented?”

Teaching media literacy is most effective when instruction matches students’ cognitive and reading abilities. School leaders can add to teachers’ educational training by demonstrating how to teach kindergarten students about fake news versus 5th or 6th graders.


Fake news and misinformation will likely continue to hurt American democracy, Manfra and Holmes said. But as school leaders integrate media literacy into social studies education, they can help create a brighter future for students and society. This five-step guide provides teachers with the knowledge and tools they need to teach media literacy. As they teach and model how to identify, analyze, and evaluate news stories, students will be prepared to engage in civic matters and make well-informed decisions to improve our society.

See how Studies Weekly K-5 Social Studies develops students’ critical thinking skills and expands their world knowledge by visiting our website.

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