New Media Literacy Standards Aim to Combat ‘Truth Decay’

By Sarah Schwartz — January 20, 2021 6 min read
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Teachers have always taught students how to vet and analyze information, but helping them distinguish fact from fiction became especially challenging this past fall.

As former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen circulated on social media and far-right news sites, students asked about conspiracy theories and falsehoods in class, and teachers struggled to figure out the best way to discuss and confront misinformation.

This week, the RAND Corporation released a new set of media literacy standards designed to support schools in this task.

The standards are part of RAND’s ongoing project on “truth decay”: a phenomenon that RAND researchers describe as “the diminishing role that facts, data, and analysis play in our political and civic discourse.”

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To create the list, researchers reviewed 35 sets of standards that cover media literacy in some way, including state technology competencies, standards developed by the International Society for Technology in Education, the Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards.

There’s a need for this roadmap, specifically focused on helping students identify trustworthy sources of information, evaluate arguments, and distinguish between opinion and fact, said Alice Huguet, a policy researcher at RAND and the first author on the report.

Media literacy can cover skills like parsing political messages and identifying disinformation—like conspiracy theories or doctored images. But the term itself is a catch-all, and can refer to analyzing, evaluating, and creating all kinds of communication. Existing sets of media literacy standards often cover things like keyboarding and website design.

“As we were reading through different media literacy standards, they didn’t always feel consistently applicable to the issues we’re dealing with today,” Huguet said.

‘Not Just Fact-Checking’

RAND’s standards are organized under four sections:

  1. Seeking a complete understanding of the facts
  2. Identifying trustworthy sources of information
  3. Evaluating the credibility of information and soundness of arguments
  4. Engaging responsibly to counter Truth Decay

The competencies aren’t subject-specific; they focus on developing habits of thought—like recognizing your own knowledge limitations and interrogating the motivations of media-makers—instead of building content area knowledge, Huguet said. “That is a mindset that we can promote in all of our classes,” she said.

The standards ask students to develop strategies they can use to fill knowledge gaps, while understanding that some tools—like search engines—can limit perspectives. They require that students be able to evaluate whether sources meet certain journalistic or scientific standards, to analyze whether an argument is supported by evidence, and to consider how the social, political, and historical context of sources influence their meaning. And they ask students to stay open to changing their minds on issues when they encounter new information.

“One of the things we’re trying to draw out from the standards is that media literacy is not just fact-checking,” Huguet said. “It’s about helping students think about this interaction that they have with their digital and real-life environments.”

For example, the standards address sharing information on social media: monitoring the consequences of what’s shared in digital spaces, and sharing content “rooted in evidence.”

Instilling these skills in future generations could help slow some of the trends of truth decay—like the confluence of opinion and rumor with fact, said Huguet. “That starts somewhere,” she said. “That starts with people sharing information that might not be legitimate.”

But what if it’s not the students who believe misinformation—like the false claim that the election was stolen—but the teachers? In the days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, some school districts learned that their employees had participated.

“This is the toughest nut to crack,” said Huguet. “It actually reminds me a lot of social and emotional learning. … It’s similar there, where I hear people talk about, ‘What if a teacher doesn’t have social and emotional learning competencies? How are they supposed to teach students about it?’”

Ideally, Huguet said, schools and districts would have a comprehensive approach to media literacy that would also support teachers developing these skills, as some school systems have done for SEL.

The challenge of supporting teachers while also supporting students, “hasn’t stopped us before,” Huguet said.

Exploring Root Causes?

Sarah McGrew, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland College Park’s College of Education, who studies the spread of online misinformation, agrees it’s important to have media literacy tools specifically focused on navigating our current information landscape. “Teachers need as much support and guidance as we can give them,” she said.

But McGrew, who was not involved in writing the RAND standards and reviewed them at Education Week’s request, said that she would want more focus on how students’ approach to evaluating information should change based on the medium.

“Evaluating information online specifically requires a different set of tools than print sources,” said McGrew, who previously co-directed the Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning project, a curriculum for teaching students how to engage with political information online.

The project teaches “lateral reading”: When students find an unfamiliar website, they shouldn’t first spend time trying to analyze the information, but rather see what other trusted sources say about this new source.

“You have to have pretty deep content knowledge to approach anything on any topic and analyze it for bias,” as suggested in the RAND standards, McGrew said. Lateral reading encourages students to recognize that they don’t know everything, she said, and to rely on experts when appropriate.

Teaching students this understanding is the first standard on RAND’s list: “Recognize limitations of one’s own knowledge or understanding of the facts.”

Still, teaching students to seek out information to fill gaps in their knowledge isn’t enough, said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, who studies disinformation, political communication, and digital ethics. Students also need to understand that the tools they use to do this, like search engines, are designed in ways that can fuel misinformation.

For example, Phillips said, a student might hear the phrase “stop the steal”—referring to the far-right movement baselessly alleging that the election was “stolen” from Trump through widespread voter fraud—and Google it to figure out what it means.

Sites that are trying to spread the theory use these terms, knowing that it will surface their pages in search results. “That is how keywords are gamed,” Phillips said. Teaching about disinformation should include teaching this kind of context, as well, she said.

The RAND standards include this (“Understand how modern information sources and tools can limit available facts and perspectives,”) but Phillips said she’d like to see a more explicit focus on teaching students how we got to this point.

“It’s not that ‘the truth has decayed,’” Phillips said. “It’s that network dynamics, the attention economy, algorithmic recommendations, and an asymmetrically polarized information ecosystem have transformed many people’s relationship to the truth.”

“We’re just not going to get very far if we only focus on the symptoms,” Phillips added. “And that is going to require some big, difficult conversations about not only that we’re in this mess but why.”

Discussing the root causes of disinformation in class can be challenging, Phillips said, because one of its drivers is far-right media. Explaining that these outlets have “built a business model on spreading falsehood” can invite claims that teachers are politically biased, said Phillips.

But teachers have to confront the reality that facts have become partisan, she said: “If we actually care about facts, we have to be willing to call out systemic efforts to manipulate the truth.”

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