New standards for media literacy aim to fight the “truth decay”
Teachers have always taught students how to review and analyze information, but last fall it became particularly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
When former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the election had been stolen began to circulate on social media and far-right news sites, students in class asked about conspiracy theories and falsehoods, and teachers struggled to find the best way to discuss and address misinformation to oppose.
This week the RAND Corporation released a new set of media literacy standards designed to help schools with this task.
The standards are part of the ongoing RAND 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”.
To create the list, researchers reviewed 35 sets of standards covering media literacy in some way, including state technology literacy, standards developed by the International Society for Technology in Education, the Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards.
There is a need for this roadmap, which is specifically designed to help students identify sources of trustworthy information, evaluate arguments, and distinguish between opinions and facts, said Alice Huguet, policy researcher at RAND and first author of the report.
Media literacy can include skills like analyzing political messages and spotting disinformation – like conspiracy theories or fake images. But the term itself is a collective term and can refer to analyzing, evaluating, and creating all types of communication. Existing standards for media literacy often cover things like keyboards and website design.
“As we went through various media literacy standards, they didn’t always feel consistently applicable to the issues we deal with today,” said Huguet.
“Not just a fact check”
RAND’s standards are divided into four sections:
- I am looking for a complete understanding of the facts
- Identification of trustworthy sources of information
- Assess the credibility of information and the validity of the arguments
- Responsible engagement against the decline of the truth
The competencies are not subject-specific; You focus on developing thinking habits – like realizing your own knowledge limitations and questioning media makers’ motivations – rather than building knowledge about the content area, Huguet said. “It’s a mindset that we can encourage in all of our classes,” she said.
The standards urge students to develop strategies to fill knowledge gaps while understanding that some tools – like search engines – can limit perspectives. They require students to assess whether sources meet certain journalistic or scientific standards, analyze whether an argument is supported by evidence, and how the social, political, and historical context of sources affects their meaning. And they ask students to stay open to changing their minds on topics as they come across new information.
“One of the things we try to deduce from the standards is that media literacy is not just about checking facts,” said Huguet. “It’s about helping students think about this interaction they have with their digital and real world.”
The standards deal, for example, with the sharing of information on social media: monitoring the consequences of what is shared in digital spaces and sharing content that is “based on evidence”.
Teaching these skills to future generations could help slow some of the trends of truth decay – like the confluence of opinions and rumors with facts, Huguet said. “It starts somewhere,” she said. “It starts with people sharing information that may not be legitimate.”
But what if it is not the students who believe in misinformation – like the false claim that the election was stolen – but the teachers? In the days following the January 6th Uprising in the U.S. Capitol, some school districts learned of their staff’s attendance.
“It’s the hardest nut to crack,” said Huguet. “It actually reminds me a lot of social and emotional learning. … It’s similar where I hear people talking: ‘What if a teacher has no social and emotional learning skills? How are you supposed to teach that to the students? ‘”
Ideally, Huguet said, schools and districts would have a comprehensive approach to media literacy that would also help teachers develop those skills, as some school systems have done for SEL.
The challenge of supporting teachers and supporting students at the same time “has not stopped us so far,” said Huguet.
Research cause research?
Sarah McGrew, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland College Park’s College of Education who studies the spread of online misinformation, agrees that it is important to have media literacy tools that are specifically focused on navigating our current information landscape . “Teachers need as much support and guidance as we can give them,” she said.
However, McGrew, who was not involved in creating the RAND standards and reviewed them at Education Week’s request, said she would like to focus more on how students’ approaches to evaluating information should change across the medium.
“Evaluating information online requires different tools than printed sources,” said McGrew, who previously co-directed the Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning project, a curriculum designed to teach students how to engage with politics online Deal with information.
The project teaches “lateral reading”: when students find an unfamiliar website, they should not spend time analyzing the information but looking at what other trusted sources are saying about this new source.
“You have to have a pretty deep knowledge of the content to approach any topic and analyze it for bias,” as suggested in the RAND standards, McGrew said. Side reading encourages students to realize they don’t know everything and to rely on experts if necessary.
Giving students this understanding is the first standard on RAND’s list: “Recognize the limits of your own knowledge or understanding the facts.”
However, teaching students to seek information to fill knowledge gaps is not enough, said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and public speaking 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, such as search engines, are designed to encourage misinformation.
For example, Phillips said, a student could hear the phrase “Stop the Steal” – referring to the far-right movement that baselessly claims that Trump’s election was “stolen” by widespread voter fraud – and googled it to find out , what it means .
Websites trying to spread the theory use these terms because they know their pages will show up in search results. “This is how keywords are played,” said Phillips. Teaching about disinformation should also include teaching this type of context, she said.
The RAND standards include this (“Understand How Modern Information Sources and Tools Can Limit Available Facts and Perspectives”), but Phillips said she would like a more explicit focus on teaching students how we got to this point .
“It’s not that ‘the truth has fallen,'” said Phillips. “The fact is that network dynamics, attention economy, algorithmic recommendations and an asymmetrically polarized information ecosystem have changed the relationship of many people to truth.”
“We just won’t get very far if we just focus on the symptoms,” added Phillips. “And that’s going to take some big, difficult conversations, not just about our being in this mess, but why.”
Discussing the causes of disinformation in class can be challenging, Phillips said, as one of the drivers is far-right media. The statement that these outlets “built a business model for spreading falsehood” can lead to claims that teachers are politically biased, Phillips said.
But teachers must face the reality that facts have become partial, she said: “If facts are really important to us, we must be ready to demand systemic efforts to manipulate the truth.”