In this era of fake news, covfefe, and biased advocacy journalism outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, how can news consumers surf through this wave of information that bombards us daily?
When I ask my students whether they’ve received training in media literacy, the response is often shrugs and blank stares. Freshmen frequently cite obscure websites as sources in their papers instead of government documents or respected news sources. Try MayoClinic.org and CDC.gov on the legalization of medical marijuana, I tell them, not “Joe’s Weed page.”
A 2016 Stanford University study showed that middle school, high school, and college students had difficulty judging the credibility of online information and are frequently duped by fake news, biased sources, and sponsored content.
Given this lack of understanding, educators are pushing to improve news, media, and bias literacy. The National Association for Media Literacy Education, located in New Jersey, publishes a literacy education journal and sponsors a Media Literacy Week every November. The Center for Media Literacy, in California, offers guidance, information, and teaching methods, including a MediaLit Kit to promote critical thinking about media. Media Literacy Now empowers grassroots efforts by providing policy and advocacy information, expertise, and resources to develop state laws that implement media literacy education in schools.
This month, the Newseum in Washington is hosting a three-day seminar on media literacy for teachers. The News Literacy Project works with teachers and journalists to teach middle school and high school students to be better informed news consumers. In Philadelphia, the Mighty Writers program recently featured a “Fake News Finders” workshop.
A growing number of universities are dedicating themselves to the cause.
The State University of New York at Stony Brook created the Center for News Literacy in 2006. It developed curricula for high schools and the public, started a high school teacher training program, and organizes national conferences on news literacy. After summer training sessions at Stony Brook, the principal and staff at a Coney Island public middle school implemented a program to encourage students to become smarter readers and news analysts. Elements of Stony Brook’s courses have spread to dozens of campuses in America and overseas.
According to NAMLE, other schools with media literacy programs include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Texas, University of California at Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, Temple University, University of Massachusetts, and New York University. Temple also has a Center for Media Literacy and Information.
State governments are also taking the issue seriously. A few months ago, media literacy legislation was introduced in California’s state Senate. The bill would require the state superintendent of public instruction and the State Board of Education to convene a committee of educators, librarians, parents, students, and media experts to identify best practices and create guidelines and recommendations on how to teach students to be skeptical, informed news consumers and how to recognize fake news. Last March, Washington state passed a digital citizenship and media literacy law. Similar legislation is pending in several other states, and state Rep. Tim Brigg has announced plans to introduce a requirement for media literacy in first through 12th grade in the commonwealth.
Media literacy provides skills essential for an educated society, and serves as a life raft to save us from drowning in a vast sea of competing ideas. Now people must become aware of the concept and demand that schools teach their children well on this topic. The media should also promote media literacy education and its importance so that people don’t respond with shrugs and have blank stares when they hear the term.
Larry Atkins teaches journalism at Temple and Arcadia Universities and is the author of “Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias.” Readers may email him at larryLTatkins@aol.com.