What media literacy means in the age of alternative facts

Published by International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), April 2017.

Post-truth, alternative facts and fake news. Media has changed a lot since we began tweeting, but the last year has left media and its consumers in a crisis. A Pew Research study revealed that 62 percent of adults get their news from social media. We now live in a hyper-partisan world where sensational fake news often spreads faster than real news, according to a post-election BuzzFeed analysis. In this age of citizen journalism, media literacy is a confusing proposition.
Adults may assume that digital natives, who can text, post and Google at the same time, are able to sort through the information onslaught better than they can. In fact, Stanford University released a study in November that indicates students have a lot of trouble discerning the credibility of online information. For example, 82 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website. Even worse, this study was completed well before the reports of fake news surrounding the u.s. presidential election surfaced.
There is hope. A study by the Civic Engagement Research Group found that media literacy training does make people significantly less likely to believe a factually inaccurate claim, even if it aligned with their political point of view.
Journalists, news outlets, teachers and individuals all over the country are reinvigorating media literacy and civic education. Stanford has created a series of lessons called “Civic Online Reasoning,” and California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez has introduced two bills. ab 155 would require the state to incorporate “civic online reasoning” in its existing curriculum frameworks, and the bill’s companion, sb 135, would similarly require the state’s education board to create a “media literacy” curriculum.
Still, the current media landscape is a brave new world that most adults find difficult to navigate. How can we help students become competent media consumers and responsible digital citizens?

The new media literacy

For adults who grew up in the age of the card catalog, it was difficult to access a large quantity of information. Today, the problem is sifting through a huge volume of resources to identify what is quality. This is an enormous shift that is disrupting all our institutions, including journalism and education. 

Frank Baker is an ISTE member, author of the ISTE book Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom and creator of the website Media Literacy Clearinghouse, a resource for teachers. Baker says the education system must value teaching media literacy, news literacy and information literacy, which he says all involve critical thinking about media messages. Asking students to read closely and ask questions of both print and multimedia, op-eds, newspaper articles and fake news examples is the backbone of media literacy. “We must engage students with the news, and they must understand how news is reported,” he says.

Reading carefully and thinking critically about the media sounds a little old school, but it is the backbone of media literacy even, and maybe especially, now that the content is infinite and at the touch of our fingertips. We still need the skills to determine if a piece of information is legitimate. 

The Center for Media Literacy was created to address this situation. President and ceo Tessa Jolls describes media literacy as being able to “access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with media in all its forms. We believe these skills are essential, as citizens of a democratic society for both children and adults.”

“All our institutions are based on the idea that information is scarce, but now it’s plentiful. What’s scarce are the process skills for discernment. In order to have a democracy and a free society, we have to rely on the discernment and judgment of each and every citizen, and that can only happen through education,” says Jolls. “They must have a methodology to rely on that’s evidence-based and is, frankly, scientific. That’s really where media literacy comes in. It doesn’t give people the answers, it just poses the questions on a base of concepts that hold true when it comes to media messages.”

Connection to the ISTE Standards

Certainly, existing education standards such as the Common Core seek to encourage evidence-based reasoning, but is that enough? Not quite, says Carolyn Sykora, senior director of ISTE’s Standards program. “[The 2016 ISTE Standards for Students] were crafted long before fake news came into the headlines, but part of the Digital Citizen and Knowledge Constructor standards are to give students the skills that allow them to be informed citizens. It lays a foundation for not just college and career, but these things are really about growing an informed citizenry that can contribute to our society in a positive way.” 

ISTE student standard 3: Knowledge Constructor

Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.
One of the indicators of a successful knowledge constructor is “Students evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data or other resources.” Another is “Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions.” Both these indicators sound a lot like thinking critically about media. (Learn more at iste.org/standards).
As a third and fourth grade gifted reading teacher at Loveland Elementary in Loveland, Ohio, Heidi Weber embraces print and digital sources, side by side. Weber says when her kids see information online, they often assume that it’s true. She uses AllAboutExplorers.com, a website created by teachers to help students learn to spot inaccurate information. The site tells the story of an explorer, such as Christopher Columbus, then throws in a line about how the Native Americans were excited about the cell phones. As Baker pointed out, teaching kids to read carefully is the first step in media literacy.

Cybercivics is a media literacy and digital citizenship curriculum for middle schoolers. The first year of Cybercivics focuses on digital citizenship and how what you post on social media reflects on you. In the second year, Cybercivics focuses on copyright, plagiarism, cookies and filter bubbles. After building these basic skills, Cybercivics goes on to focus on media literacy in the third year, i.e., how to evaluate for veracity and stereotypes and how to avoid becoming a purveyor of inaccuracy.

The founder and teacher of Cybercivics, ISTE member Diana Graber, says that by middle school, kids are ready to become good, ethical thinkers. “They should use these muscles in the classroom with friends before they go out into the online world and make critical mistakes,” she says.

Graber teaches students to use author Howard Rheingold’s “craap detection test” when assessing media. Is the information current? Is the information reliable? Who is the author? What is the point of view or purpose? Graber says teachers can embed this test into any subject where students are doing research.

The first question of media literacy is to ask who authored it, says Baker. “Most people forward messages that originate via social media with little or no regard to who wrote it or what their purpose is,” he says. “That’s unfortunate. If students don’t care who creates the news they consume, they’re destined to become media illiterate.”
Mike Ribble, an ISTE member and author of the ISTE book Digital Citizenship in Schools, says students must also go beyond reading. For instance, some websites are made to look like an official news website but, in fact, are fakes. Students must know how to investigate “About” pages, scrutinize URLs, go back to the source if a study is referenced, suspect the sensational and become familiar with independent debunking sites such as Snopes or Factcheck.org, as well as understand that a Google search employs filters that will return biased results.

“We have to be more critical of information. We have to become critical thinkers and not just believe the first thing that my Google search comes up with,” says Ribble. “We want students to see that how many likes or shares they have on Facebook is not a good metric for deciding if information is true or real.”

ISTE student standard 2: Digital Citizen

Students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical.

With the political debate around the election playing out almost entirely on social media, the term “digital citizen” takes on a whole new meaning. Ribble points out that while there is a lot to contend with on the technology side of media literacy, it must be based in societal civility. “When I say digital citizenship, I mean we have to be able to communicate and interact and be willing to hear other people,” he says. “If all we’re doing is yelling so loudly that we only hear ourselves, we’re not going to be able to work as a society. It will break us down as an organized group of people.”
This points to one of the indicators of being a successful digital citizen: “Students engage in positive, safe, legal and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices.”
We have rights and responsibilities as members of society, says Ribble. If we share fake or inaccurate information, we are culpable in that lie. Further, if we have the knowledge that something is fake or inaccurate and we don’t point that out, we bear responsibility for the perpetuation of that misinformation.
Graber agrees. She says we must show kids how to be “empowered upstanders.” That can translate to teaching them to block or flag inappropriate or inaccurate content and not to like or follow things that are inaccurate. These simple acts change the algorithms and helps change the information that is out there.
Another rule of thumb is to avoid trolling, which is a form of cyber-bullying. Likewise, think carefully before sharing memes or slogans taken from a partisan website. These are usually intended as a slap to the other side rather than to start a meaningful conversation. “Giving kids all those ideas and mechanisms to be powerful participants of their world is super important,” she says. “We want to be responsible consumers of media but also to be great producers of media. Not just digital citizens, but digital leaders.”

ISTE student standard 7: Global Collaborator

Students use digital tools to broaden their perspectives and enrich their learning by collaborating with others and working effectively in teams locally and globally.

We live in a global society, but sometimes those in our own country can seem the most foreign. According to the ISTE student standards, two indicators of a Global Collaborator are particularly appropriate. “Students use digital tools to connect with learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, engaging with them in ways that broaden mutual understanding and learning,” and, “Students use collaborative technologies to work with others, including peers, experts or community members, to examine issues and problems from multiple viewpoints.”
It’s more important than ever to examine our own biases and look beyond our own culture. Without being critical thinkers, we tend to click on things that confirm what we already believe. “It’s going to be important to teach students to step away from some of those biases,” says Ribble. “That’s a whole other conversation about empathy and character. As critical examiners of information, we have to be able to step back and see that there may be another side to this that doesn’t fit with what I want to be true.” Otherwise, we find ourselves in the territory of, in Stephen Colbert’s word, “truthiness.”
In fact, it has always been teachers who have kept media literacy alive, often without support at an institutional level. “Media literacy has always been looked at as an ‘add on,’ and in fact, it’s central,” says Jolls. “It’s through media literacy students can obtain content knowledge and contextualize content knowledge.” Not to mention participate fully as citizens in a democratic society as well.
Is it too much to expect teachers to add media literacy to their already packed checklist of content to cover? In this day and age, media literacy is a basic life skill students need across every single subject.

“If all teachers are building media literacy skills into their content areas, then that student will graduate having had teachers modeling and creating learning activities that allow students to practice those skills,” says ISTE’s Sykora. “We can’t afford not to take the time to develop this skill in our students.”

© 2017 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), All Rights Reserved 


Author Bio: 

Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the University of Oregon. As a mother to elementary and middle school-aged children, she’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in Oregon schools.