Why we need media literacy classes now, more than ever

Education on how to find authentic, factual information in today’s digital landscape is a must for future generations

“So you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a congressional hearing at the end of October. “I’m not talking about spin. I’m talking about actual disinformation.”

While the intense and heated questioning between Zuckerberg and Ocasio-Cortez made the headlines, and Twitter trends page, it highlighted an issue nearly every American has become brutally aware of since the 2016 election; disinformation and propaganda has infected media and online databases, spreading like a virus in a compact airplane.

As a modern-day editor and reporter, it can feel like 90 percent of my day is spent battling disinformation, both professionally and on a personal basis. Trying to create credibility among my readers and spread accurate facts and information is akin to climbing a mountain as a novice. Most days I throw in the towel and wonder where our society is headed when people on the right and left use shakey or dishonest sources to argue against factual reality.

“The worry is no longer about who controls content. It is about who controls the flow of that content,” Modern philosopher Michael P. Lynch wrote in a 2016 New York Times editorial. “It is no coincidence that we are now seeing Big Data companies like Facebook sponsor presidential debates. Nor is it a coincidence that people are increasingly following the election on social media, using it both as the source of their information and as the way to get their view out.”

There can be a simple solution to saving society from falling into the hands of those who wish to manipulate facts for their own benefit, media literacy classes in public schools. Scholars and researchers have barely scratched the surface of how media literacy classes in K-12 settings affect a student’s ability to decipher facts from skewed-realities, but what has been done shows positive results in how students face the world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the constant barrage of advertising, breaking news and online conspiracies.

The LA School Report published a story in April of 2019 on how one Seattle teacher is shaping his students’ perspective through a mandatory media literacy class.

“Seeing his students apply five core concepts about media to what they see on Netflix, at the movies and online is Danielson’s favorite part of his job. It’s how he knows he has altered the way they consume media,” the article states. “‘I’ve changed them for life.’”

While there has been little quantitative studies on how digital media literacy education impacts a student’s participation in politics, community organizations or advocacy, some scholarly articles support the theory that teaching students how to curate and sift through media can create a less apathetic approach to the online world

“Engagement with new media has the potential to strengthen young people’s participation in civic and political life,” Joseph Kahne, Nam-Jin Lee and Jessica Timpany Feezel, authors of the 2012 study ‘Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation’, wrote. “Educators, policymakers, foundations, and others are considering ways to develop desirable bridges between these two domains.”

The study, published by Stanford University, covered research of over 7,000 middle and high school students. The report covered news literacy, the students’ ability to judge credible facts from Facebook and Twitter feeds, comments left in readers’ forums on news sites, blog posts, photographs and other digital messages that shape public opinion.

The assessments were aimed to find out if students obtained the skills to find out the source of these stories, and whether or not the source was deemed “credible.” The students underwent 15 tests, five for each middle school, high school and college level classes participating in the research.

“In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation,” the authors wrote. “When it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The study showed that out of 203 middle school students, over 75 percent were able to identify classic advertisement models and traditional news stories. But over 80 percent of students were unable to identify native advertising, identified by the words “sponsored content,” and instead thought the advertisements were news content.

“Some student even mentioned that it was sponsored content but still believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words ‘sponsored content,’ was still a real news story,” the study states. “This suggests that many students have no idea what ‘sponsored content’ means and that this is something that must be explicitly taught as early as elementary school.”

About 12 states have implemented some type of legislation to make media literacy classes available, or mandatory, in K-12 education, and more states should jump on the bandwagon. The State of Washington Legislature is considering passing a bill that would create funding and grant opportunities to educators to create media literacy curriculum, and possibly allocate state monies to hold conferences on the subject.

Our nation is being pulled to the far ends of each political spectrum and is witnessing seismic rifts in our dialogue. There are more calls for immediate action to fix intangible issues such as inequity among the races, genders and other minority groups. Being able to create an educated generation prepared with the tools to face our new reality is crucial to fix these issues. Disinformation along with slanted resources so readily available online abuses the first amendment and is creating a world with an uncertain reality.

When we can’t agree on what’s real and what’s fake, how can we as members of a community try to mend what has been broken?

This isn’t a problem just among younger generations. A majority of the population believe they are able to decipher between what is credible and unreliable sources. In fact, a survey produced in 2018 by the Pew Research Center of just over 5,000 adults shows that a large portion of the surveyed adults had a hard time discerning what was a factual news story, and what was an opinion piece (this is an opinion piece, by the way).

“For example, 36 percent of Americans with high levels of political awareness (those who are knowledgeable about politics and regularly get political news) correctly identified all five factual news statements,” an article from journalism.org regarding the study stated. “Compared with about half as many (17 percent) of those with low political awareness.”

Supporting media literacy curriculum among K-12 schools is the first step to finding a better, clearer future. Those who agree can find many free resources such as; media literacy curriculum from Commonsense.org and more free resources from the nonprofit The Newseum.

The disenfranchised reality of today’s news and digital media will not be fixed with a quick bandaid-like solution, but with continuous work to educate our future leaders and influencers to be better consumers of facts and information.