Media illiteracy poses a ‘threat to democracy’

CHICAGO – Fake news is on people’s radar like never before due to speculation about what role it may have played in the past election. And not a moment too soon; the lack of media literacy in this country is becoming an epidemic – one that, like so many other public health threats, is particularly harmful to children.

Recently, researchers at Stanford University’s History Education Group began to measure what they call “civic online reasoning,” which they define as the ability to judge the credibility of information viewed while on electronic devices.

The Group administered 56 tasks designed to evaluate understanding of the reliability of news sources to middle school, high school and college students – in both well-resourced and under-resourced schools – across 12 states.

What the researchers found comes as no surprise to anyone who spends time with young adults who have had digital devices in their hands since toddlerhood:

“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak,” reads the study’s executive summary. “We would hope that middle school students could distinguish an ad from a news story. By high school, we would hope that students reading about gun laws would notice that a chart came from a gun owners’ political action committee. And, in 2016, we would hope college students, who spend hours each day online, would look beyond a .org URL and ask who’s behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But, in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.”

The authors conclude that our ability to harness the power of the free flow of information is threatened by media illiteracy, and “will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”

Unfortunately, the skill of media literacy is a narrow one that is possessed mostly by people in the media. We cannot expect parents to teach their children skills like understanding that “native advertising” and “sponsored content” on a legitimate news site are not independently reported news without a hidden agenda if the parents themselves don’t understand that there is a distinction.

And expecting the educational system to craft a response to this major blind spot in current education curricula for tomorrow’s voters and citizens is practically out of the question.

A 2015 study on the necessity of media literacy for teachers found that “Media literacy remains perhaps the most important addition to current teacher education, even if it must be ‘slipped in’ with the rest of the curriculum [because] requiring an entire course in media literacy in undergraduate teacher education may not be feasible at many colleges and universities with teacher preparation programs.”

As a teacher, I have seen countless students who could not spot the differences between reliable sources and plain propaganda. But, worse, I’ve seen numerous examples of teaching materials that have included outdated (and therefore incorrect) news articles, handouts produced by for-profit organizations looking for future customers and untold numbers of videos from sources that were clearly produced by organizations with strong political agendas.

These things jump out at trained journalists, but it’s sort of unfair to bash teachers for presenting such materials to their students as trustworthy and factual when teachers can’t spot the inconsistencies.

“Our first round of piloting shocked us into reality,” the Stanford History Education Group study declares. “Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite.”

They believe that awareness is the first step in demonstrating the link between digital literacy and citizenship in order to “mobilize educators, policymakers, and others to address this threat to democracy.”

But public education institutions move glacially while those who use technology to push their agendas evolve quickly to disguise their bias by making it look like impartial content.

Realistically, today’s citizens are on their own in learning how to spot fake news But there is a way to start: Study the URL to see if you recognize it or if it has other letters after the dot-com. Then take a quick look at some of the headlines. This can tell you a lot.

Copyright, Washington Post Writers Group.

 

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