Educators fight misinformation with media literacy education
As misleading news reports, misinformation, and inaccurate data spread around the world, students of all ages need better guidance on how to evaluate media and data. Some universities and some K-12 school systems have developed media literacy courses and standards to help. Photo credit: Jackie Mader / The Hechinger Report
When Jevin West read the news bullet-proof about Covid-19 and the elections last fall, he kept finding new examples to bring to his data literacy and misinformation course at the University of Washington.
West, an associate professor, and Professor Carl Bergstrom teach Calling BS: Data Reasoning in a Digital World (although the actual course list uses the more colorful language). Her course covers everything from interpreting data visualizations to understanding publication bias in academic literature to identifying fake news. They never lacked material to work with.
“There were things we could bring in almost every day,” West, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said of the fall. “You have tons of material to draw from in real time.”
Calling BS was launched in 2017 and became an instant hit at the University of Washington; it is rapidly filling its 150-student capacity each year. The curriculum – including YouTube videos of the lectures – is also available free of charge to all teachers who want to use it. To date, faculties at more than 100 colleges, including overseas schools, community colleges, and Ivy League universities, have taken the course in what West calls the “BS Movement.”
“It’s difficult to learn and trust information when we don’t know how information is manipulated,” West said.
“Today’s information environment is incredibly exciting and there are all types of access, but there are really some enormous challenges and pitfalls and dangers out there.”
Peter Adams, Senior Vice President of Education, News Literacy Project
As conspiracy theories spread on social media and misleading news spread in internet echo chambers, educators across the country – and around the world – are trying to combat misinformation by teaching students to be better news, media, and data consumers . Some universities, such as the UW, offer individual courses with this focus. Others have developed minor subjects or even diplomas on the subject of media literacy. At the K-12 level, states have begun incorporating media literacy into their standards, and programs have emerged that aim to train students to become better news consumers.
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Whether media literacy or data literacy, research suggests that this type of education is needed in general. A 2016 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that significant numbers of middle school, high school, and college students failed to adequately assess the credibility of online information.
“Overall, the ability of young people to think about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: gloomy,” write the authors of the study.
College students were easily fooled by biased “high production value” websites, including links to news organizations and “revamped” about “pages. More than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between sponsored content and actual news.
The middle school exercise was almost excluded from the study because researchers thought it was too easy, said Sam Wineburg, Stanford professor and lead author of the report. “We were stunned,” he said of the overall result.
A follow-up report from 2019 showed similar dismal results. Almost all high school students surveyed had “difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction online,” and 96 percent of students did not question the credibility of an unreliable website.
According to experts, it is necessary to focus on media literacy training in the classroom – from the third or fourth grade onwards.
“We are committed to this as educators,” said Peter Adams, senior vice president of education for the News Literacy Project. “Today’s information environment is incredibly exciting and there are all types of access, but there are really some enormous challenges and pitfalls and dangers out there.”
More than a third of middle school students say they have seldom or never learned how to judge the reliability of information sources, which “really is the foundation of what constitutes media literacy,” said Helen Lee Bouygues, President of the Reboot Foundation, an expert on misinformation and the critical Think.
In a 2016 study by Stanford University, more than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between sponsored content and actual news.
However, there is limited research into how best to teach students to interpret information they encounter online, Wineburg said. He is critical of programs that he says encourage students to “play 20 questions” by carefully examining every facet of a website. “We teach the credibility of the internet as if it were 2002,” he said. “This is exactly the opposite of what professional fact checkers do.”
Wineburg’s research has shown that fact checkers don’t dig deep into a website to determine its credibility, but rather search components of it in new browser tabs to gain an outside perspective. Teaching students these strategies has shown positive results in recent studies.
Some believe that partnering with journalists on media literacy could also help. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans believe that the news media has the “greatest responsibility” in reducing fake news and misinformation.
This is exactly what two of the News Literacy Project’s most popular programs do. Checkology, a free e-learning platform, is aimed at students in grades 6-12 and offers interactive lessons from journalists and media professionals on how to apply critical thinking skills and how to interpret and use information. The NewsLitCamp, designed for educators, also relies on journalists. For a day, a school works with a local newsroom to bring teachers, school librarians and media specialists together with journalists to learn about topics such as journalistic standards and practices, news judgments and biases, and the role of social media.
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Despite such programs, experts remain concerned that teaching media literacy and identifying misinformation in the classroom is not yet a priority.
“In some counties, English-speaking arts teachers have almost no flexibility to work in something like this, and in others they do,” said Adams, adding that social studies teachers have a little more flexibility and flexibility to incorporate this literacy into their classes.
Media or news education, too, shouldn’t be just a class or a one-time lesson, warned Adams. Educators need to incorporate it into the classroom throughout the school year, he said.
Calling BS, the University of Washington’s course, attempts to address the difficulties of integrating such lessons into the classroom. West and Bergstrom have tried to easily integrate the curriculum – and parts of it – for overworked high school teachers into the courses they are already teaching.
The course primarily focuses on how data is created, manipulated, and shared, which West said could be taught in almost any classroom. At the University of Washington, students from more than 40 majors are enrolled in the class. Elsewhere, the course has been integrated with courses in several areas, including engineering, statistics, English, economics, and business.
“It touches everything. It touches every topic, ”said West.
As new technology and social media platforms emerge, Adams said it was “critically important” to formally incorporate this literacy training into the curriculum.
“The students have a right to it,” he says. “Information is clearly the basis for your citizens’ initiative and participation. If someone can misinform you, they can abuse the power of your citizen’s voice. “
This story about media literacy education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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