Out of the mouths of babes: primary school children ‘Rewrite the Headlines’
Here at Research the Headlines we have been working hard on developing a How to “Research the Headlines” series and have now posted 8 top tips. We used the first of these tips – ‘Don’t stop at the headline’ – to pilot our next public engagement project ‘Rewrite the Headlines’. In this project, we aim to help children learn from a young age to be media savvy about how scientific research is described in the media.
We have developed a powerpoint presentation centred around three headlines that have been in the print media, each of which highlights the importance of going beyond the headline. We piloted this in an hour long session as part of a ‘Masterclass’ series in a primary school in Scotland with a group of 7 children in P5 and P6 (aged about 9 and 10 years). The kids turned out to be little bright sparks! They knew all about the media and not only mentioned papers but also chatted about the internet and television news. One of the girls said “yes sometimes when the news comes on they bring on an expert so that’s good!”. The inclusion of experts in scientific news relates to one of our other tips!
We discussed three headlines in the news starting off with this report in the Daily Mail that “smoked salmon could be worse for you than a margherita pizza because of high fat content”. We discussed the concept of ‘selectivity’ and the children agreed that this applied to this headline – the journalist was being selective about the type of fat in each of the foods concerned. One of the children pointed out that the headline wasn’t too much of an exaggeration because the journalist said “could be” worse. Very smart kid! Each of the children made an attempt to rewrite the headline to ensure accuracy and they came up with examples like “salmon has fat but it has the good fat” and “smoked salmon has fat but not necessarily bad fat, pizza has bad fat!”.
We also discussed one of their favourite topics – chocolate! They were very surprised to hear of the BBC headlines “chocolate is good for you – official” and “chocolate can help you live longer”. When we read beyond the headline the children spotted that the article said “as long as you don’t eat too much of it”. We spoke about exaggeration and it was clear the children understood this term when one girl said “so the media can sometimes be like a drama queen!”. I agreed but also spoke to them about how they were finding rewriting the headlines with only a few minutes to do so and having to take in and understand an article that someone else wrote. They agreed that this could cause you to not be as accurate as you could be. The children came up with headlines like “chocolate is good for the heart but only if you eat a wee bit!”.
The last headline we spoke about was one we have covered already in our Research the Headlines posts about exercise and ageing. The Daily Express had run a story with the headline “2 minutes exercise a week can beat ageing“. One of the boys very astutely pointed out “that’s on the front page so you wouldn’t even need to buy the paper to read that!”. Amongst other things, we spoke about the sample size of 12 people and the group seemed very clued up on weighing up evidence and the importance of several studies showing something especially if its about something important like health. An example of the headline they came up with was “2 minutes of exercise is good but more is better and healthier”. All in all, this session seemed to be very worthwhile – the children clearly grasped the concept of “Don’t stop at the headline!”. Several said they would be telling their mums and dads to watch the whole news and not the first minute, to read the papers more fully and to question anything they were unsure about. Some of them said they watched the children’s Newsround programme and would be more careful about watching it all and with a questioning approach. Now we have piloted the concept of “Rewrite the Headlines”, we plan to develop this project further and roll it out across Scottish schools in the form of a competition – the winner being the school who comes up with the best headline!