In this era of fake news, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, alternative facts, covfefe, and biased advocacy journalism outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, how can we as news consumers surf through this wave of information that we are bombarded with daily?
As a university professor, when I frequently ask my students whether they’ve received any training or education in media literacy, all I get in response is a bunch of shrugs and “huh?s”. My freshman students often cite obscure websites as sources in their papers and articles instead of authoritative government documents or respected news sources. I need to tell them to cite authoritative sources like MayoClinic.org and CDC.gov when discussing the legalization of medical marijuana, 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 information that they found online and are frequently duped by fake news, biased sources, and sponsored content.
Given this lack of understanding when it comes to media exposure, media messaging, reliability, sorting information, and potential bias, a growing number of teachers and schools across the country are making an effort to improve students’ news and media literacy through media literacy courses. However, much more needs to be done.
Media literacy is the ability to critically analyze and evaluate all forms of media. News literacy is a subset of this, as it relates to the ability to analyze and evaluate news. Part of this analysis is evaluating bias.
Media Literacy organizations, including The Center for Media Literacy and The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), are leading the charge. NAMLE, located in New Jersey, publishes a Journal of Media Literacy Education, and every November it organizes and promotes Media Literacy Week. The Center for Media Literacy, headquartered in California, provides guidance and information about media literacy and methods of teaching it. The center has provided a MediaLit Kit for teaching critical thinking about media as well as fact sheets, media interviews, blogs, articles, its website, and publications on the topic of media literacy. Its website details core concepts of media literacy.
Media Literacy Now is an organization that empowers grassroots efforts to provide media literacy education by providing policy and advocacy information, expertise, and resources to develop state laws that implement media literacy education in schools.
In July, the Newseum in Washington, D.C. is hosting a three-day seminar for teachers which focuses on Media Literacy. 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 featured a Media Literacy “Fake News Finders” workshop.
There is a growing number of universities and K-12 programs that are dedicated to teaching media literacy.
The State University of New York at Stony Brook created the Center for News Literacy in 2006, which teaches undergraduate students how to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and news sources. The center has developed curricula for high schools and the public through the Digital Resource Center. It organizes national conferences on news literacy and started a high school teacher training program in order to bring news literacy courses to classes across the nation. Elements of Stony Brook’s media literacy courses have spread to several dozen other American campuses and several countries.
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.
As John Timpane of The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, Philadelphia schools such as Norwood-Fontbonne in Chestnut Hill are participating in the News Literacy Project funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In suburban Philadelphia, Bucks County schools have included media literacy education as part of its curriculum for several years.
According to NAMLE, among the universities that have media literacy programs are MIT, 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 University has a Center for Media Literacy and Information, which serves as a hub for research, outreach, education, and professional development on media literacy issues.
A few months ago, as reported by edsource.org and Common Sense Media, media literacy legislation was introduced in California’s state senate that 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 similar digital citizenship and media literacy law. Similar legislation is pending in several other states.
As I emphasize in my book, “Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias” (Prometheus Books) , it is important for K-12 students and college students to be educated about media and news literacy if we are to give them tools to evaluate the news and information that bombards them 24 hours a day. Teachers need to be given extensive media literacy training so they can pass on that knowledge to their students. There needs to be more legislation like the law in Washington state that encourage the creation of media literacy education in schools. Pennsylvania State Representative Tim Briggs (D. Montgomery) recently announced that he is seeking to introduce legislation that would require that media literacy be taught in grades K-12.
Media literacy can provide skills that are essential for an educated society, and it can serve as a life raft to save us from drowning in a vast sea of competing ideas It’s important that people become aware of the concept of media literacy and demand that schools teach their children well on this topic. The media should also give exposure to media literacy education and its importance so that people don’t shrug and have blank stares when they hear the term media literacy.
Larry Atkins is the author of Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias (Prometheus Books). He teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. This is an expanded version of an Op-Ed Commentary article that was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: larryLTatkins@aol.com . Twitter: @larryatkins4