During and after the 2016 presidential campaign, questions arose about whether shortcomings in civics instruction had exacerbated polarization in the electorate and influenced the election’s outcome. The questions on civics education were soon accompanied by a related one: What if schools are contributing to a breakdown in democracy by failing to ensure kids are media literate?
The election cycle was fraught with an onslaught of “fake news” and a brazen proliferation of conspiracy theories. Facebook users were sharing blatantly false news stories to such a high degree — either intentionally or inadvertently — that the social network created a tool to combat the trend.
Many observers worried that Americans weren’t being equipped with the critical-thinking skills they needed to consume and redistribute news, to navigate the complex news-media ecosystem, and make constructive decisions based on those skills as members of society.
Media literacy is a subject many schools have long incorporated into the curriculum. Yet with the explosion of online information, teaching media literacy “is vastly more challenging now,” said Amy Guggenheim Shenkan, the president of Common Sense Media, a research and advocacy organization whose mission is to help kids thrive in a media- and technology-centric world.
Shenkan and other experts in the field gathered for a panel at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar recently to discuss the push to upgrade media literacy in schools amid an era of information overload and blurring lines between fact and fiction.
And media literacy is especially relevant to education reporters because it’s a topic in which they are simultaneously players and observers. This means that, in both roles, they ought to treat the challenges of teaching digital literacy and citizenship with the complexity and nuance they deserve.
Fear of Offending
For Jo Phillips, a civics-education teacher in West Virginia, last year’s election rendered the already-challenging task of teaching media literacy overwhelming. In previous years, Phillips would often resort to simple resources such as Snopes.com to help her students decipher misinformation. Not anymore.
“Trying to delicately go through the information without offending students, without offending parents and making them feel like you’re biased against or for President Trump” can feel like an insurmountable feat for Phillips — particularly because her students almost invariably come from very conservative families that trust little other than Fox News.
But while the “fake news” phenomenon is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the need to ramp up media literacy in schools, Guggenheim, Phillips, and their co-panelists agreed it’s just a tiny slice of the problem.
“Students struggle to make sense of the incredible amount of information that comes at them through digital devices,” said Joel Breakstone, who directs the Stanford History Education Group, a research center within the university.
But Is It Reliable?
In 2015 and 2016, the group conducted a study among nearly 8,000 students from middle school to college designed to gauge their ability to judge the credibility of information. The participants were presented with a series of tasks — perusing a website and determining whether it was reliable, neutral source, for example, and comparing the quality of a sponsored-content article on The Atlantic to that of one written and edited for the magazine’s science section.
The upshot: “Across the board, students really did quite terribly in making sense of … all this conflicting, misleading information,” Breakstone said. They identified MinimumWage.com as a credible source of information — even though the website is maintained by a lobbying firm for the food and beverage industry — and more than three in four participants preferred The Atlantic’s sponsored-content article over the editorially independent one because the former had an attractive infographic.
Students, Breakstone said, struggled “to ask basic questions like: ‘Where did this information come from? What are the other sources? What’s the evidence behind it?’”
The fact that adults struggle in these kinds of exercises, too, suggests that media illiteracy is in large part symptomatic of a systemic flaw: schools’ failure to instill these skills amid an increasingly convoluted world of information. In fact, even college professors “struggled mightily” in attempting the Stanford History Education Group’s survey tasks. “They wanted to read their way out of the sources rather than trying to look for information outside of them,” Breakstone said.
The beauty of the problem is that it presents a relatively straightforward (and, as Shenkan noted, bipartisan-friendly) opportunity for improvement. Breakstone emphasized the importance of looking toward the best practices of professionals — fact-checkers, for example — and institutionalizing those strategies in classrooms.
Journalists: Explain Your Craft
Phillips encouraged education journalists in the audience to volunteer to visit their local classrooms and explain to students what their job entails, particularly because kids are unlikely to be exposed to the nuances of the craft unless they’re in a journalism class or on the school paper. Common Sense Media for its part has succeeded in passing media-literacy-focused legislation in four states and introducing it in more than a dozen others.
There’s also a wealth of existing initiatives dedicated to enhancing media-literacy instruction in schools. The News Literacy Project, for example, has for years worked with teachers and journalists to help students figure out what information sources to believe in a digital world: how to distinguish between credible and verified journalism, raw information, opinion pieces, advertising, propaganda, and flat-out misinformation.
Last year it launched a virtual classroom called Checkology, a program comprising a dozen lessons. Many of them involve interactive, role-playing exercises that reaches more than 950,000 students in every state.
“We give them the tools to be better students today and better-informed and engaged citizens tomorrow,” said Alan Miller, who founded the organization in 2008 after a long career as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “In a sense, we were the antidote to fake news long before anybody ever coined that term.”
Echoing Breakstone and others, though, Miller stressed that fake news is just the tip of the iceberg: The News Literacy Project has worked with students who don’t even know what “news” is. Any solution requires demystifying the journalistic process for kids — what it takes for something to end up on the front page of a daily newspaper versus an obscure political blog. “The key is that students understand that all information is not created equal,” Miller told the EWA audience.
Resources such as those offered through the News Literacy Project also enable teachers to integrate the media-literacy lessons into existing instruction, whether it’s in social-studies or English class, rather than tacking it onto or replacing curricula; they’re also aligned with the Common Core standards. This makes the resources particularly appealing to schools, according to Miller, because extracurriculars are often the first things to go amid limited time and resources and accountability requirements that prioritize core subjects.
Worries About Wikipedia
Ensuring kids are media literate also necessitates some industry rebranding; the public’s waning trust in journalism is perhaps most acute, and most visible, among young people.
In one survey, Common Sense Media found that kids are skeptical of the news media largely because they feel journalists are prone to poorly represent their experiences and to discriminate against certain demographic groups: More than two-thirds of children surveyed felt the news media has “no idea about the experiences of people their age,” and similar percentages suggested that it treats women and people of color unfairly. These findings are particularly pertinent for education journalists, who write about young people more often than their colleagues on other beats and whose stories may be the ones young people are more likely to encounter.
For Stanford’s Breakstone, that starts with moving beyond the black-and-white debate around real versus fake news. The hugely popular conspiracy-theory website Infowars, he pointed out, can actually serve as a useful source in understanding a prevailing perspective in American society; contrary to what many school-library guidelines contend, .edu domains aren’t unequivocally reliable, and Wikipedia isn’t unequivocally unreliable.
“We need to move beyond this good-and-bad dichotomy of evaluating sources,” Breakstone said, “and think more about it as … what is the [given] perspective and what is it useful for?”