Media literacy won’t save us (but we can improve it) (opinion)
In response to concerns about disinformation and the emergence of authoritarian political movements, education, journalism and civil society leaders have called for media literacy initiatives to educate the public – and especially young people – about the effects of their mass media consumption habits.
But solving the propaganda and disinformation problem with media literacy is problematic in itself. Not only is the scientific discipline not clearly defined, current educational initiatives also have no clear evidence of effectiveness.
The wheels are in motion to counteract the massive public consumption of propaganda and disinformation with awareness-raising initiatives. Earlier last year, the European Commission called for “a multidimensional approach to disinformation”, including media literacy, to combat the effects of disinformation and “help users navigate the digital media environment”. Sweden announced a new national initiative to educate children about evaluating online information sources. Nonprofit groups and academic institutions in the United States and Canada are starting with well-resourced media literacy efforts.
Educators should be aware of this uncertain terrain when implementing media literacy strategies in schools. ”
Proponents of this type of educational initiative cite various causes of the media consumption problem: inadequacies in online bourgeois reasoning, cognitive biases that create a demand for information consistent with pre-existing beliefs, and the documented widespread dissemination of political disinformation, especially during and after the 2016 US presidential election. Education is certainly a smart move, as cognitive processes have been shown to influence the impact and spread of disinformation. However, if the reason for seeking media literacy is because voters would not support political strong men unless voters were deceived, media literacy education does not offer easy solutions.
Consider the ambiguous nomenclature of the academic discipline, which includes: media literacy, news literacy, digital literacy, information literacy, media studies, and more. This inconsistency reflects the academy’s disagreement over the definition of media literacy. Is it the ability to spot propaganda? To create and participate in media content? To check credible sources of information? Or is it an appreciation for the importance of journalists and the free press? These definitions are all at play and there is no consensus.
Educators should be aware of this uncertain terrain when implementing media literacy strategies in schools. I urge teachers and principals to consider the following suggestions in order to clarify and improve media literacy in the American school system:
• The media literacy curriculum must take into account the cognitive effects of using social media and the Internet.
Concern about internet overuse among young people is widespread in the mental health community and students should be educated from an early age about the potential neurological and psychological risks of using these media platforms. Strategies to avoid misconduct with regard to young people’s social media habits need more attention.
• Students need to be taught more than just effective media production as a content creator and mass media participant.
While ethics and good judgment are part of the curriculum, media literacy efforts built around digital content creation do not fully prepare young people for the harsh realities of today’s internet environment. They must be instructed that users can be attacked, accounts can be hacked, and bad actors often try to manipulate perceptions with disinformation. Confirmation errors, selective exposure, and echo chambers must also be considered. In other words, teaching a teen how to run a car successfully is not enough; they must also be instructed about the dangers to which they are exposed in road traffic.
• Educators should contact the nearest newsroom as a resource.
Local journalists can be valuable educational contributors if they teach young people the free press and the standards of accuracy and ethics that good journalism requires. With the endless supply of disinformation and entertainment content available to passive internet users, young people need guidance on how to actively find and rate good journalism in order to be informed citizens.
In return, journalists need to do more to make their practices transparent and make their content accessible to young people who are not yet ready or unable to scale a news site’s paywall. In today’s environment of attacks on the press from the highest levels of government, local journalists are generally keen to engage with the community. Major education initiatives – including Trusting News at the Missouri School of Journalism and First Draft at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard – can help local newsrooms fight disinformation and the erosion of public trust.
• Local librarians can be the closest experts available in preventing disinformation and navigating the Internet.
Many libraries offer free programs for identifying disinformation and finding accurate information. In early 2017, the American Library Association even passed a resolution calling on librarians to “raise public awareness of the many types of disinformation and media manipulation used to mislead the public.” Educators can work with local librarians to provide students with a quick and affordable educational experience.
These steps in developing a media literacy curriculum will help address the widespread inability of young people to understand the enormous amount of media they consume online. In a 2016 study of the online civic reasoning skills of middle, high school and college students, researchers from the Stanford History Education Group concluded: “Overall, the ability of young people to ponder the information on the Internet can be in one word: gloomy. “
But even at this moment of media literacy, the effectiveness of existing media literacy interventions is not clearly understood. The mixed results in media literacy research make it difficult to draw valid conclusions about the effectiveness of anti-propaganda education.
Despite this uncertainty, media literacy efforts will – and must – continue. Educators need to seek a solid foundation for curriculum content when success can be expected or measured. This can only happen if there is consensus on the essential importance of the endeavor. Collaboration between educators, journalists and civil society leaders will be vital in the new and pressing educational drive for media literacy.
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