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Can media literacy fight the “truth decay”? What teachers should know

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As fake news rages and heated political debates online, more and more teachers are turning to media literacy to help their students make sense of how information is created and disseminated today.

In a new report, RAND Corporation examined this evolving landscape of media literacy education. In interviews with a dozen media literacy experts and an overview of studies on educational interventions, the researchers examined how media literacy is defined, what teaching resources are available, and how effective media literacy education is against the spread of misinformation.

They found that while media literacy is highly important according to experts, there are no universal skills for the discipline, making it difficult to evaluate and compare educational programs.

The report is the latest in RAND Corporation’s study of what they call “the decay of truth,” or the blurring of the lines between opinion and objective fact. The first report in the series, written by my colleague Stephen Sawchuk last year, attempted to define the problem and identify its source.

In this 2018 report, the researchers wrote that the public is increasingly prioritizing opinions and personal experiences over facts – and that the veracity of established facts is now up for debate. Political polarization, cognitive biases and the rise of social media are partly to blame, they argued. But the education system also plays a role. Pressure on schools to prioritize reading and arithmetic, coupled with the difficulty of the education system to adapt to rapid change, means that students do not always learn to be critical consumers of information.

This is where media literacy comes in, said Alice Huguet, associate policy researcher at RAND Corporation and lead author of this new report. Explicitly teaching these skills is a way to combat the decline of the truth and help people “be better prepared to enter the information ecosystem,” she said.

In interviews in this new report, experts said that media literacy generally refers to the ability to find, critically interpret, and shape media. But under this big umbrella there are many subfields that deal with certain types of information – like news literacy, digital literacy, and science literacy.

The report also found that there are several ways to conceptualize the purpose of media literacy. Goals vary, from checking the quality of information to uncovering the financial motivations of certain messages to understanding the role of the media in civic and political life.

Ultimately, however, there is no conclusive evidence as to which approaches are most effective in K-12 classrooms. The studies examined by the researchers differed in how they defined and measured media literacy, and there weren’t many studies that measured the effects of certain interventions. Overall, however, correlation research has shown that teaching media literacy can improve students’ ability to analyze and interpret information, Huguet said.

Classroom applications

What do these insights mean for educators who want to impart media literacy?

There is no clear guide to which resources are best. For now, Huguet said, teachers should focus on their particular school or community context and their own expertise to determine what will be most useful for their students. The researchers created a database of 50 educational resources, ranging from short videos to full curricula. You have not rated these materials but described their format and the content they cover.

Still, Huguet identified some best practices. Media literacy classes are not just about checking facts, she said, and teachers should recognize the complexity.

“In our really heated political climate, with all this attention to fake news, it’s really easy for us to think that we’re just trying to teach people to differentiate between real and fake news,” she said. “But it is not that simple.”

Teachers should work with students to develop other media literacy skills as well, such as assessing the process that creates a product. For example, rigorous scientific research on climate change comes about through a different process than an opinion article on the subject. Understanding the standards of scientific research gives students more context in trying to decide what to trust and what to share, Huguet said.

In interviews with RAND researchers, experts discussed the balance between skepticism and trust. It is important that students understand that there are trustworthy sources of information and where to find them.

Huguet noted that the research does not make it clear whether integrating media literacy into the curriculum is more or less effective than offering it as a stand-alone class. Still, she said, there is evidence that more engagement with these skills correlates with better results. The report also suggests involving community members such as librarians and clergy in media literacy education.

“When we think about how many different approaches there are in media literacy research, we can see that you don’t have to be a language teacher or a social studies teacher to participate in media literacy,” she said. “If we want the herd immunity that we are talking about, which means that everyone is vaccinated against this issue of truth decay, that will take everyone’s hands on deck.”

Image: Getty

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