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Media Literacy Isn’t Coming to Save Us (But We Can Make It Better)

By Amy Callahan — January 23, 2019 5 min read
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In response to concerns about disinformation and the rise of authoritarian political movements, leaders in education, journalism, and civic life have called for media literacy initiatives to educate the public—and young people, in particular—about the effects of their mass-media consumption habits.

But solving the propaganda and disinformation problem with media literacy education is problematic in its own right. Not only is the academic discipline not clearly defined, but current educational initiatives lack clear evidence of effectiveness.

The wheels are in motion to use educational initiatives to counter extensive public consumption of propaganda and disinformation. Earlier last year the European Commission called for “a multi-dimensional approach to disinformation,” including media literacy to combat the effects of disinformation and “help users navigate the digital media environment.” Sweden announced a new national initiative to educate children about evaluating online information sources. Nonprofit groups and academic institutes in the United States and Canada are launching well-resourced media literacy efforts.

Educators should be aware of this uncertain terrain when implementing media literacy strategies in schools."

Proponents of these types of educational initiatives cite various root causes of the media consumption problem: Inadequacies in civic online reasoning, cognitive biases that create a demand for information aligning with pre-existing beliefs, and the documented widespread dissemination of political disinformation, particularly during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Education is surely a wise step, as evidence indicates cognitive processes are an influential factor on the impact and spread of disinformation. However, if the rationale behind the push for media literacy is that electorates would not support political strongmen unless voters had been duped, media literacy education does not offer easy solutions.

Consider the ambiguous nomenclature of the academic discipline, which includes: media literacy, news literacy, digital literacy, information literacy, media studies, and more. This inconsistency reflects disagreement in the academy about the very definition of media literacy. Is it the ability to spot propaganda? To create and participate in media content? To verify credible sources of information? Or is it an appreciation for the importance of journalists and the free press? These definitions are all in play, and no consensus exists.

Educators should be aware of this uncertain terrain when implementing media literacy strategies in schools. I urge teachers and school leaders to consider the following suggestions to clarify and improve media literacy as it descends upon the American school system:

• Media literacy curriculum must address the cognitive impact of social media and internet use.

Concern of internet overuse among young people is widespread in the mental health community, and students should be taught from an early age the potential neurological and mental-health risks of using these media platforms. More attention must be paid to strategies for avoiding maladaptive behavior as it relates to the social-media habits of young people.

• Students must be taught more than simply how to effectively produce media as content creators and mass-media participants.

Even if ethics and good judgment are part of the curriculum, media literacy efforts built around creating digital content do not fully prepare young people for the harsh realities of the internet environment as it exists today. They must be instructed that users can be targeted, accounts can be hacked, and bad actors often seek to manipulate perceptions with disinformation. Confirmation bias, selective exposure, and echo chambers must also be addressed. In other words, it is not sufficient to teach a teenager how to successfully operate a car; they must also be instructed regarding the hazards they will encounter on the road.

• Educators should look to their nearest newsroom as a resource.

Local journalists can be valuable educational collaborators when teaching young people about the free press and the standards of accuracy and ethics that good journalism requires. Considering the endless supply of disinformation and entertainment content available to passive internet users, young people need instruction on how to actively find and evaluate good journalism, in order to be informed citizens.

In turn, journalists need to do more to make their practices transparent and their content accessible to young people who are yet unwilling or unable to scale a news site’s paywall. Given today’s environment, with attacks on the press from the highest levels of government, local journalists are generally eager to connect with the community. Major training initiatives—including, for example, Trusting News at the Missouri School of Journalism and First Draft at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy—can support local newsrooms in fighting disinformation and the erosion of public trust.

• Local librarians may be the closest available experts on avoiding disinformation and navigating the internet.

Many libraries offer free programs on identifying disinformation and locating accurate information. In early 2017, the American Library Association even passed a resolution urging librarians “to help raise public consciousness regarding the many ways in which disinformation and media manipulation are used to mislead the public.” Educators can collaborate with local librarians for quick and affordable educational experiences for students.

Taking these steps in developing media literacy curriculum will help to address young people’s widespread inability to understand the vast volume of media they are consuming online. In a 2016 study of the civic online reasoning abilities of middle school, high school, and college students, researchers in the Stanford History Education Group concluded: “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

Yet, even in this full-steam-ahead moment of media literacy, the effectiveness of existing media literacy interventions is not clearly understood. Mixed results in the body of media literacy research make it difficult to draw valid conclusions about the effectiveness of anti-propaganda education.

Despite this uncertainty, media literacy efforts will—and must—push forward. Educators must seek to build a solid foundation in curriculum content if success can be expected or measured. This can only occur if consensus is reached regarding the essential meaning of the endeavor. Collaboration among educators, journalists, and civic leaders will be essential in the new and urgent educational endeavor of media literacy.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Media Literacy Isn’t Coming to Save Us (But We Can Make It Better)


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