Enrichment Education

Media literacy is desperately needed in classrooms around the country, advocates say

Tero Vesalainen/ iStock

Story at a glance

  • Media literacy is the process of critically assessing information found on the internet.
  • Advocates say media and news literacy is desperately needed in K-12 classrooms around the country.
  • Data collected by nonprofit News Literacy Project found 55 percent of students were not even moderately confident in their ability to recognize false information online.

As misinformation and disinformation have inundated the internet on topics ranging from the current conflict in Ukraine to COVID-19, advocates are pushing to have media literacy taught in schools. That’s a process of critically assessing information found on the internet, which experts argue is becoming increasingly essential to the well-being and full participation in economic and civic life.  

There are many advocacy groups dedicated to pushing media literacy, citing research that children aged 8 to 18 spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day with media outside of school. At the same time, most schools don’t teach children how to use media thoughtfully and apply critical thinking skills to the onslaught of content available on a slew of different devices.  

A 2016 study by Stanford University’s History Education Group (SHEG) found that across middle school, high school and college students, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.” 

That’s despite those young people being considered “digital natives,” able to seamlessly toggle between Facebook and Twitter while also texting a friend. However, Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford and one of the lead authors of the study, told Changing America that the biggest problem facing Americans is, “using skills that were developed in an analog age to understand a digital medium.” 

Wineburg went on to conduct another study last year, that examined the effect media literacy can have on students at Nebraska’s Lincoln Public Schools (LPS). High school social studies teachers at LPS were taught six lessons on “civic online reasoning” to improve students’ ability to make quick but accurate judgements of internet sources.  

The results showed that students who received “civic online reasoning” instruction, “grew significantly in their ability to judge the credibility of digital content. These findings inform efforts to prepare young people to make wise decisions about the information that darts across their screens.”

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Researchers from SHEG argued that the volume of content on the internet is unsurmountable and that there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to research every single issue — but people need efficient, time-saving strategies to separate good information from bad.  

One of the key strategies SHEG employed in its study was lateral reading, which involves investigating who’s behind an unfamiliar online source by leaving the webpage and opening a new tab to see what other trusted websites say about the unknown source.  

“The most important thing can be summarized in four words: get off the page. When you are not familiar with the site, or the source of information, use the power of the web,” said Wineburg. 

Some groups hope to enact permanent legislation that focuses on media literacy similar to what SHEG conducted at LPS. Media Literacy Now (MLN) is an advocacy group that has helped pass legislation in nine states as well as established grass-roots efforts across the country to get lawmakers, educators and parents involved in pushing for media literacy curricula in K-12 classrooms. 

MLN played a role in helping pass House Bill 0234 in Illinois last year, which mandates every public high school include in its curriculum a unit of instruction on media literacy — like the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and communicate using a variety of forms, including, but not limited to: print, visual, audio, interactive and digital texts. 

A big component of media literacy is news literacy, which focuses on applying similar critical thinking skills to news media content. Advocates say that’s a huge area of concern, as misinformation and disinformation about U.S. presidential elections, the COVID-19 pandemic and even the current conflict in Ukraine can mislead consumers — leading to poor decisions that can even cost someone’s life.  

Pre-assessment data among over 100,000 students collected by News Literacy Project (NLP), a nonprofit focused on news literacy programs, found nearly 4 in 10 students could not recognize that a meme about GMOs did not contain strong evidence for the accompanying false claim about their safety.  

More than half of the students indicated they were not even moderately confident in their ability to recognize false information online. 

In order to address that, NLP offers training sessions for educators to learn how to teach news literacy, including a camp that brings educators into a newsroom to learn directly from journalists themselves. 

It’s an effort that has been widely embraced — since NLP launched in 2016 it’s engaged with over 50,000 educators in all 50 states and an additional 120 other countries. In 2022 alone, the organization estimates it has reached 2 million students. 

“It’s really about helping people determine fact from fiction, and its nonpartisan. We don’t have a political agenda. We believe that everybody needs to make decisions that are founded on facts. So it’s really just about giving you the skills to think critically about the news and information you encounter, whether you should act on it, share it, whatever it is,” said Mike Webb, senior vice president of communications at NLP. 

According to NLP, over the last five years at least 29 states and the District of Columbia have begun exploring legislative solutions to address news literacy, but the group says many stop short of mandating instruction.  

“An ideal piece of legislation in this area would require middle and high school students to complete a unit of news literacy instruction, and also require teachers in core subject areas to integrate news literacy concepts and skills into their respective curricula,” said NLP in a white paper provided to Changing America.  

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