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Why media literacy is more important than ever for today’s youth


The 2019 general election is already remembered as the one where misinformation went mainstream. Of course, it was already on the political agenda after the referendum and the US elections in 2016, as more and more academics and parliament are sounding the alarm because foreign actors are disrupting democratic processes with so-called “fake news”.

But what was seen during the electoral term was not the work of marginal actors. Instead, large political parties appeared to be adopting tactics previously associated with shady actors on the edge of the information ecosystem. No major party was completely innocent, as the First Draft cross-check project shows.

But the Conservative campaign consistently employed controversial tactics. Tactics such as posing the press office as a fact-checking service and editing BBC news material to imply that prominent journalists support the party’s line on Brexit.

Voters, the evidence suggests, have been caught in a storm of misleading Facebook posts, memes, and streamlined videos. This was a covert propaganda campaign and its effects have yet to be determined.

Research by the Reuters Institute for News has shown for some time that an increasing number of people in the UK are checking their news online – 74 percent in 2018. Over a third (39 percent) receive news via social media.

However, recent reports have shown that the situation is even more complex. The work of the Guardian and Ofcom shows that people report on news consumption, skim headlines and consume so-called messages about user-generated memes, celebrity influencer posts and politicians on social media.

Information crisis

There have been calls for urgent reform of political advertising laws to address this confusing digital landscape in elections. Politicians must take this seriously in the coming months.

But there is also room for a bottom-up response to this information crisis. The future electorate must be taught to navigate the modern news landscape. Young people also need to understand why, in the age of misinformation, news of public interest is more important than ever.

Far from being “digital natives”, evidence from the US points to a generation of young people who have no idea where their information comes from on the Internet or why they read it. A report by the Stanford History Education Group evaluated the online skills of 3,446 high school students ages 12-17 between June 2018 and May 2019. They described the results as “worrying”.

There is no evidence that young people in the UK are doing any better. In fact, the 2018 Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills found that only two percent of children have the critical literacy skills necessary to identify a credible news story.

News literacy required

A growing number of educators, policymakers, and third sector groups are demanding that news and critical digital literacy be taught in schools.

In its final report on fake news published in February 2019, the UK Parliament’s Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport reiterated its call for digital literacy as the fourth pillar of education alongside reading, writing and math. But so far these calls have fallen on deaf ears.

In response to the committee’s report, the government insisted that it was not necessary, arguing that students were already studying the core components of digital literacy in history, English, and IT. There have also been suggestions that there is no need for government action as there are others in the field.

It’s not just kids either, half of all people now get their news from social media. Source: Shutterstock

There are actually news organizations, charities, and others that run news literacy workshops in schools that cover topics like how articles are put together and the meaning of news. The government-commissioned Cairncross Review on the Future of Journalism highlighted some of these and suggested that greater collaboration between them could be encouraged as part of a government media literacy strategy.

These initiatives, like NewsWise, a Google-funded partnership between the Guardian Foundation and the National Literacy Trust targeting elementary school children, do valuable work. However, many are limited in scope and scope, rely on external funding and, in most cases, are not subject to independent assessment or benchmarking. And the numbers are wrong. According to the Ministry of Education, from 2018 to 2019 there are almost nine million school children in England. But such initiatives don’t reach more than 10,000 children – and that’s a generous estimate. This is not enough to handle the scale of the challenge.

Check sources

After finding himself at the center of a fake news series last week of the election campaign about a real picture his newspaper published of a boy lying on the floor of the Leeds General Infirmary, the editor of the Yorkshire Post urged readers not to trust a social media poster that “disappears into the night”. Instead, he urged them to appreciate the difference between this and verified, independent, and accountable journalism.

But that is easier said than done. Messages are no longer fed by a handful of gatekeeper media. That’s not a bad thing, but in order for tomorrow’s voters to have a healthy news diet, schools need to equip them with the skills. And the government must act to get that done sooner rather than later.

By Frances Yeoman, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, Liverpool John Moores University and Kate Morris, Lecturer in Journalism, Goldsmiths, University of London

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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