Joyce Grant is a freelance journalist and a professor of media studies at Humber College in Toronto. She is also the author of Can You Believe It? How to Spot Fake News and Find the Facts from Kids Can Press. I interviewed Joyce about her book geared for nine to 13 year olds, but perfect for people older as well, TeachingKidsNews.com, a free website for kids to access the news, and the importance of giving your kids the tools to spot fake news.

Congratulations on your latest book Can You Believe It? How to Spot Fake News and Find the Facts.

Thank you! I’m very excited about it.

You co-founded TeachingKidsNews.com, a website for kids to access the news in kid-friendly language. Was this book a natural progression from that news site? Explain.

It was! Back in 2010, I partnered with a brilliant educator named Jon Tilly. He and I developed a news website that explains to kids what’s happening the world and provides curriculum material for teachers. It’s called TeachingKidsNews.com (TKN) and it’s free to use. The journalists who write for it are volunteers and we provide really high-quality news articles. Last year, we won international recognition for our site.

Because of TKN, I go into a lot of elementary classes to talk about the news and journalism. Over the years, more students and teachers began asking me how to tell if something on the internet is fake.

A few years ago, it was relatively easy to spot fake news because a lot of it wasn’t very well written, it looked amateurish and was riddled with typos. But fake news has evolved. It’s now more professional looking – more like real journalism. Kids (and all of us) need better ways to figure out whether something is real or not. And one of the ways, I realized, is to understand what credible journalism looks like and how it is founded in accuracy.

Why did you decide to create this book now? How long was this book in the making (idea to publishing)?

The process takes longer than you might think. It was about three years from contract to bookshelf. And I probably spent five years doing the research before I wrote the pitch.

I’m actually glad it came out in 2022. The zeitgeist is primed for a book like this. People are fed up with misinformation and fake news has gotten so much better that it’s really much harder to identify. I think everyone – not just kids- want some tools to help them sort the fake from the real.

Why is this book important?

The internet isn’t going away – and it’s inevitable that kids will be (or are already) using it. There’s no denying that the internet is entertaining, informative and addictive at times.

If your child was going swimming, especially if the waters might be choppy, you’d give them a lifejacket and you’d teach them how to swim. Learning how to spot fake news, understanding why it’s not good and knowing what to do about it is like that. If our kids are going to dive into the choppy waters of the internet – and they are, whether we like it or not – we’d better make sure they know how to swim.

The book is for nine to 13 year olds. Why did you write this book for kids this age?

Honestly, I hope this book will be used by people past the age of 13 – adults, too. For the most part, we’re looking at kids who are on the internet or are about to start using it. Nine to 13 is a good time to catch them, before they’re fully ensconced in the internet and equip them with the knowledge that maybe we wish we’d received back then.

The other thing that targets it at the nine-to-13 age group is the amount of context and background. Kids that age need a bit more context to understand sophisticated concepts and acronyms.

You play a game with audiences, called “Post or Pass?” Why – and how does it work?

For learning how to spot fake news, I’m finding that games can reach young people quickly and with long lasting impact.

So, I developed the “Post or Pass?” game where I read out headlines taken from the internet and the audience has to guess whether the article is true (in which case they might want to post it on their social media) or it’s false (in which case they should just pass it by).

After I read each headline and we all vote, I let the audience in on something that gives it away. For instance, if it’s a headline that is very emotional, I’ll explain that a lot of fake news tends to make you very emotional because you’ll be more likely to share it.

By the end of the game, everyone has a pretty good set of ideas about how to spot fake news.

What other games can help kids pick up fake-news spotting skills?

I’ve put together a list of great online games that are not just fun, but really helpful to get kids thinking more critically about the news. You can find links to them on my TKN website at: https://teachingkidsnews.com/fakenews/#games

Some of the games teach kids HOW to create fake news. The theory is that when you know how it’s done, you can better avoid it. Other games have you guessing which images are photoshopped, or which posts have been created by bots. They’re fun but with a purpose. And they’re fun for adults as well as kids. I’ve played the BBC iReporter game many, many times and it’s always fun.

Why should adults read your book?

I think adults want to know, just as much as kids, how to spot fake news and what to do about it. I’m a strong believer in learning from each other. Adults should teach kids, for sure, but there’s also a ton to learn FROM kids. I learn something every time I talk to kids about this subject. It’s all new and it’s ever-changing.

What can adults do to help their children learn how to spot fake news? (And what should adults be doing)?

Well, for one thing they can buy their children my book, lol! But there are lots of things adults can do. The next time your kid shows you a video, if it looks a bit fake, talk to them about why you think it might have been staged or is misleading or has a missing point-of-view.

If your kid shows you a video of a fantastic trick shot – someone sinking a basketball backwards from the other end of the court – enjoy it with them, but then ask your child how many times they think that person tried to sink that shot. Or if you think it’s been edited, talk to them about that and show them the jump cut or the wonky camera angle.

You don’t have to be a Debbie Downer about it. You can still laugh with them about the video, if it’s doing no harm. But sometimes just draw back the curtain a bit. Show them that yes, it’s funny, but hey, it also might be a bit contrived, it might have been edited or pieced together to make the person look good. It’s not about demonizing the people who post or enjoy a video like that. It’s about having that little voice in your head that says, “something’s not quite as it seems here.”

When you started TeachingKidsNews.com in 2010, it was more about introducing the news to kids and connecting what is going on in the world to them. When did you start to see the change from that to helping kids learn about misinformation in the news?

It was about four or five years ago. That’s when students and teachers started asking about fake news.

Why is this topic so important?

At its best, fake news can be amusing or benign. But at its worst it can ruin people’s lives. It can perpetuate racism. It can change elections. It can scam people out of money. It can start wars. It is extremely powerful at times and that’s why we want to get good at spotting it when we’re young. To prevent ourselves from getting fooled down the road, when it matters.

What has been the response to your book so far?

Overwhelming! I’ve had so many positive comments. This week I read comments like, “Every child over age eight needs to have this book,” or “this book needs to be in every school library.” I’m constantly amazed when I see someone posting it on their socials and telling people about it. It’s just unbelievably gratifying and humbling. Even (actress) Mindy Kaling posted about it in her Instagram stories. I realize that doesn’t have anything to do with me – she’s a fan of illustrator Kathleen Marcotte’s work (as am I) – but it was a huge boost for the book. Kaling has 6.3 million followers! To realize that suddenly millions of people may have seen your book cover… that’s pretty overwhelming. It’s awesome.

What do the kids think?

The reaction I’ve had from kids is that this book is for them. And that’s exactly right. I think they can see that I have a deep respect for the things kids know and how they can help us adults in this fight against misinformation. I think they also appreciate that I’m very positive about the internet. I’m not telling them the internet is bad. I’m just trying to give them some tools to navigate it more safely.

In addition to this book, you have written books for middle grade and pre-school, from baseball to magic letter books. Why do you enjoy writing books for children?

When I was young, books were my friends. I was a very outgoing kid, pretty mouthy a lot of the time, and that sometimes got me in trouble with bullies. So, there were times when I needed to hide inside books – books became my safe haven. Books can take you anywhere you want to go. When I write for children, I’m always thinking of young-me and to a certain extent I’m writing for that young person.

You write for children at various ages. Do you have a favourite age group to write for? Why?

I’m 12 years old. I’m perpetually 12 years old. Don’t we all have an age that we picture ourselves as, even as an adult? I understand the 12-year-old brain. It’s a fun age because it’s an age of wonder before we need to be “cool.” It’s a time when you’re really authentic. If something’s funny, you laugh. If something’s sad, you can cry and it’s OK to do that. It’s a fun age to write for. I think a lot of middle-grade aged kids get overlooked as well. They get underestimated. But that’s precisely the time when they’re figuring out who they are and what they’re good at. It’s a time of real growth and change for kids.

You have written both fiction and non-fiction. What genre do you prefer? Why?

My first love was fiction. I always thought I’d be Jo March from Little Women, penning the next great novel by candlelight. But after a career as a journalist and in marketing, I’ve written thousands of articles and so it’s very natural, very easy for me to write non-fiction. I enjoy the process of coming up with an idea and then researching – diving deep into it. Finding the experts and interviewing them. Reading the studies. Talking to people about new ideas in the field, whatever it is. I love all of that.

But I also love a challenge, and a big part of me is still Jo March and I want to write that dramatic novel with the memorable characters and the sweeping plot arcs. I have a novel for adults that I’ve worked on for a really long time and I’m currently trying to find an agent for it, or a publisher. I think it’s good and I really want it to be seen by others. But publishing’s hard. It’s all really, really hard – some days more than others. But I’m not going to stop because at the end of the day, I love it too much.

What kind of research went into Can you Believe It? How did you ensure the information you presented was correct?

That’s a great question! The answer is: a ton. I probably put more research into it because it was also my passion. I was really invested in the topic, and I wanted to know more about it.

At first, six years ago, there wasn’t a lot of information out there. Now, of course, there’s a lot of it and it’s still evolving. I read what the universities are doing, and I interviewed experts like Sam Wineburg at Stanford University and Matthew Johnson at MediaSmarts here in Canada and people at the international fact-checkers’ association. I follow a lot of experts on misinformation on social media and I read their articles and papers. I talk to a lot of journalists as well. About best-practices for news gathering and accuracy and the changing face of the newsroom. I talked to digital journalists about how their work has changed. I also talked to a lot of parents, teachers and kids. And librarians and principals.

I had a lot of people look over the book when it was finished, to make sure that everything in there was up-to-date and accurate, and I’m grateful to them for their help. And of course, Kids Can Press has their own fact-checkers and editors, who were awesome.

How is the book different from when you pitched it to how it looks in people’s hands?

The book really came up from my presentations to students. As I started talking to schools about fake news, I started categorizing all the information I had collected. Sorting it. So, I knew I wanted to cover things like satire and opinion pieces and how real journalism is made. But when I put it all together it wasn’t as fun as I wanted it to be. It wasn’t light enough – it felt too didactic.

Fortunately, Kathleen Keenan at Kids Can Press understood exactly what I wanted to do, and she played a huge role in wrangling all of my information into a format that flowed well, that made sense and that left me room to write it the way I thought it needed to be written. With humour and respect for the reader and with hope for a better, healthier internet.

Was there information you wanted to include but it got cut (for various reasons)? What? Why was it left out?

As an adult, I always want to pull back the curtain for kids. To tell them things I wish adults had told me. Give away the secrets of the adult world. So, I was constantly going off on tangents, about digital secrets and manipulations I wanted kids to know about. But Kathleen helped me rein that impulse in. Because that would have made the book too rambling and taken it off course. She helped me stick to the original idea, which is to help kids spot and fight fake news. And that’s okay because the little bits and pieces that got cut are definitely going to go into another book. Ha!

What do you hope children – and their parents – get from this book?

First of all, I want people to see that the internet is an amazing, often beautiful, always surprising and useful thing. That it’s not something to be feared or avoided (well, within reason). I want to help make it safer for kids and parents. I want to decode it a bit and help people see behind the curtain. I want to help kids think more critically about what they read and to feel empowered over that information. Because there are so many amazing, incredible things about the internet – as long as we know how to navigate it safely.

Why do you encourage them to read it?

For one thing, I want them to read it and give me feedback. I want to know how they spot fake news. I want to learn from them, and vice-versa. We can teach each other because fake news isn’t going away, and the internet isn’t going away so we had better help each other figure it all out.

Why is it important for children to pay attention to the news?

I think that it’s important for kids to know what’s going on in because it’s their world. They’re part of it and what happens affects them. But the news isn’t presented in a way that’s accessible for young people – that’s frustrating. Knowing what’s happening today prepares you and gives you context for what will happen next. One thing leads to another. If you don’t know that so-and-so is president and what that means, then when something happens you don’t have the context you need to interpret current events. And it becomes a cycle. So, I want every kid to have access to information about what’s happening in the world, so they can make their own decisions and make a difference.

Anything else you would like to say?

I want to thank Jon Tilly, who really got me started on this journey 12 years ago. And Kathleen Tilly. They are incredible educators. Jon was teaching my son when he was in Grade 3 and he let me share with the class the wonders of journalism and what was happening in the world. And then we came up with the idea for the website TeachingKidsNews.com, as a gift to teachers across North America and around the world to share with their classes. Jon and Kathleen wrote the curriculum component of TKN for more than eight years. And it’s all volunteer, of course. We wanted kids to know what was happening in the world. TKN really was the start of it all, and those inspirational educators helped me see how I could be part of all that learning. I thank them and I thank my family and all of the people who went into making this book, as well as the readers and the supporters who enjoy it. Thank you.

And lastly, if you’re a kid and you’re reading this book and TKN and you feel that spark of curiosity, a sense of excitement around the news and social media and you want to tell others about it… I want to welcome you to the field of journalism. Because kid, you’re probably a journalist. And I can’t wait to see what you do!

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