WHY THIS COMMUNITY NEWSPAPER MATTERS: Community newspapers fight the scourge of fake news
Ruby Pratka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, QCNA NewsMatters contributing writer
Quebec’s community newspapers have spent much of the last two years keeping readers informed about how to combat the COVID-19 pandemic – from providing updates on case numbers and new public health measures, to documenting community self-help efforts, encouraging local businesses and providing much-needed distraction.
They have also played a role in helping readers distinguish reliable information from the swirl of pandemic-related misinformation making the rounds on social media. Statistics Canada refers to this information crisis as an “infodemic.” A Statistics Canada survey found that 96 per cent of Canadians had been exposed to pandemic-related misinformation and 40 per cent reported believing something they had seen online before later realizing it was false.
“Fake news is a scourge,” said Nikki Mantell, publisher of the Low Down to Hull and Back News. As a mother of two elementary school-aged kids, she said she is disturbed by what her own kids tell her they “learned” on Youtube and other sites and is considering a media literacy program at her local school. Some years before the pandemic, the paper did classroom workshops on news literacy and debunking, and a Letter to the Editor activity in an elementary school classroom.
Publishers Penny MacWhirter of The Gaspé Spec and Lily Ryan of the West Quebec Post, Aylmer Bulletin, Gatineau Bulletin and Pontiac Journal have also invested considerable time in outreach to local schools and school boards. At the Sherbrooke Record, publisher Sharon McCully, editor Matthew McCully and associate editor Gordon Lambie are giving students at local English schools the tools to fight misinformation, while improving their writing skills and creating connections with their community newspaper.
In 2019, the Record received funding from the Official Languages branch of the Department of Canadian Heritage under the Community Media Strategic Support Fund to scale up its existing program of journalism workshops in schools. Lambie, a former teacher, planned to visit local schools, walk students through the work of a reporter and guide them as they produced their own reporting. He intended to off er workshops in classrooms for grades 3 to 11. During the pandemic, the activity went virtual. Lambie said most of the classes that have taken part have been in grades 4-6.
“Aft er a bit of trial and error, the format that we settled on was to introduce students to the work of the newspaper first — things like how to find sources and verify information,” Lambie explained. “Then we transitioned into a writing exercise, where we touched different themes. We wrote some editorials and some reported articles and discussed the difference between opinion and fact-based reporting.”
Lambie believes in the importance of giving elementary school students the tools to navigate the infodemic. “As access to information gets easier, the line between what’s real and what’s not online is particularly hard to find and people aren’t necessarily getting their information from sources with rigorous fact-checking. Encouraging curiosity and skepticism in students from an early age is really important for society.” Lambie has also led workshops in university classrooms and at the Wales Home, a retirement home for English-speaking seniors in Cleveland, Que.
“As access to information gets easier, the line between what’s real and what’s not online is particularly hard.”
-Gordon Lambie, associate editor, Sherbrooke Record
Sharon McCully says workshop materials have been shared with the Townships Sun, a local English-language magazine, and the Spec, both QCNA member publications. In the future, she hopes to create a regular section in the Record with student-generated news and features.
In Lambie’s experience, students are eager to learn and explore. “For the most part, students are really engaged and curious,” he said. “They want to know where the news comes from, how we figure out what to say and what not to say and where those decisions get made.” Lambie and his colleagues also created a video tour of the Record office, and many students were fascinated by the paper’s in-house printing press.
For Lambie and Sharon and Matthew McCully, the project serves multiple purposes – reinforcing students’ media literacy, improving their writing skills and reinforcing the connection between the paper and schools in the English-speaking community. “The Record is, first and foremost, a community paper, and engaging with the community is a key part of everything that we do. When students ask where our stories come from, I say our most interesting pieces come from people calling us or walking in the door saying, ‘Did you hear about this?’ Connections with students and teachers help keep those connections alive,” Lambie said.