If a child is old enough to learn to read, it’s time to teach them to be media literate. But how to implement that in schools takes some problem solving skills.

A teen shrugs at the difference between information on different computer screens.

A teen shrugs at the difference between two computer screens. One shows an article by the New York Times, the other an article on InfoWars, a site that has a history of publishing conspiracy theories and misinformation. Illustration by News Decoder. 

If you go to school in Finland you will get media literacy in all your grades and across all subject areas.

“They don’t wait until high school to talk about fake news,” said Jevin West, professor and director of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. “They talk about it in pre-school, they talk about it in health classes, they talk about it in writing classes.”

The country incorporated information and media literacy decades ago, considering disinformation to be a security risk and omnipresent given its shared border with Russia. Finland has a unique education system with shorter class times, limited homework, yet students benefit from years with the same teacher who is able to tailor instruction for each individual. The government also collaborates with educators to support new initiatives.

This makes Finland remarkably different from most other countries.

In much of the world, primary and secondary students are unfamiliar with the act of deliberately choosing a source of news, and too young to recall a time before the advent of customized social media feeds. They routinely face a torrent of misinformation and manipulation through their mobile devices without having a grounding in media literacy.

In an age of TikTok and AI-generated content and declining trust in mainstream journalism, it is increasingly difficult online to separate fact from fiction.

Designing education for a digital world

Educators and researchers agree that students should be taught to be proficient digital consumers in the classroom. But every year, another graduating class fails to learn this 21st century skill in school, adding to the ranks of adults who are easy prey for disinformation.

“I think media literacy should be part of our curriculum from early childhood education onwards,” said Allison Butler, communications professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of Mass Media Literacy.

The moment for this initiative appears to be now, sparked in part by the angry accusations of “fake news” that have become a feature of political discourse.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more bills getting introduced and passed in recent years,” said Erin McNeill, director of Media Literacy Now, an advocacy group for public education in media literacy. “We’re really reaching a tipping point in the past year or so.”

In the United States, Delaware and New Jersey are currently the only states with laws that require media literacy instruction for K-12 students. There are currently 19 states with legislation addressing the need for media literacy standards, yet few articulate a plan of action for schools. California last fall passed legislation requiring its Department of Education to consider incorporating media literacy content for students of every grade. Texas mandates that each school district include this instruction, but does not specify grade levels.

Educators building media literacy into classrooms

Since 2016, there has been much more of a focus on media literacy, says Michelle Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

“The conversation about fake news literally opened a door that put a spotlight on our work overnight,” said Lipkin. The 2020 election, the COVID pandemic and the life-or-death consequences of disinformation brought even greater attention to the need for this instruction, she said.

Media literacy is an umbrella term defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication,” according to Lipkin’s group. It includes the ability to identify the motives of an information source and the goals of a message.

The terms digital literacy or digital citizenship refer to the capacity to evaluate online content including social media. News literacy describes the application of these skills to determine whether a news source is credible and adheres to the standards of professional journalists.

Media Literacy Now argues that being an informed consumer of information is an essential skill in modern life. Without the ability to properly vet information, people cannot make critical decisions such as managing their health, planning their finances, choosing a reliable source of news or collectively participating in a democracy.

Fighting a tide of illiteracy

Research suggests that most students are far from media literate.

A Stanford study of more than 3,400 high school students found that most lacked the skills to judge the reliability of online information. More than half believed a grainy video that purportedly showed ballot stuffing during the 2016 U.S. presidential election was evidence of fraud, when in fact the video was actually shot in Russia.

The same study found that 96% of students viewed a climate change website funded by a fossil fuel company as an impartial source of information. An MIT study showed that people tend to spread false information much further and faster than true stories.

Despite the growing evidence of media illiteracy and the motivation of state legislators, Lipkin said, there is a lack of dedicated funding and resources for teachers to meet these new goals.

Most classroom teachers have not had media literacy training and need professional development before they can teach their students. A national decline in teachers, including licensed school librarians, makes creation and execution of a media literacy program even more difficult.

Let’s first teach the teachers.

In spite of the challenges, many teachers see the value in this pedagogy.

“I think there’s a high rate of students who have access to phones by the time they’re in fifth grade. You can’t wait until they get a phone to have these discussions,” said Gretchen Zaitzeff, a library media specialist for a Utah school district of more than 30,000 students. “By the time they come to kindergarten, almost every student has handled a phone or a tablet.”

Zaitzeff said she uses an online curriculum called Civics Online Reasoning (COR) to guide local teacher librarians teaching media literacy. Additional online resources include the News Literacy Project’s Checkology and Project Look Sharp.

Often it’s a matter of teaching how to look at multiple news sources.

“What we found is that overwhelmingly students accept information at face value and do not depart from a given website,” said Joel Breakstone, co-developer of COR, describing the challenge of teaching young students.

To break this habit, one of the key principles is “lateral reading” which refers to checking the credibility of a claim by consulting other sources. Rather than remaining on a website with questionable information to find answers, known as “vertical reading”, students are taught to open a new tab and see if new information conflicts with what more trusted websites offer.

Another exercise is called “click restraint.” This entails spending a few moments to review the full screen of search results before clicking the first one, which is often the most visited site, but may not be the best.

Other lessons teach students to evaluate the authenticity of online photos and how social media algorithms adapt content for each user.

Early media literacy education

But these lessons should start early, says Saba Presley, a middle school science teacher in the U.S. state of New Mexico. Children need these skills at an early age and middle school may actually be too late. “We’re reviewing lessons that start in kindergarten, introducing the concept of being a healthy skeptic,” she said.

New Jersey, one of the few states to mandate K-12 media literacy education, still faces a long curriculum development process.

Eva Dziedzic-Elliott, past president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, said the New Jersey Department of Education needs time to create the new standards. But even then, it doesn’t mean schools will follow those standards. “This only the beginning of the battle,” she said.

New Jersey has a large and decentralized public system, with more school districts than municipalities. The districts ultimately decide what they will teach and are accountable to local administrators rather than the state commissioner. Dziedzic-Elliott said that school districts can choose not to teach a subject they consider controversial such as climate change.

With such different ideas about education standards at the state and county level, McNeill said, it is virtually impossible for the United States to institute a national standard for media literacy.

“You can think of each state as a separate country in terms of education,” McNeill said. “We’re trying to get 50 little countries to adopt their own policies and let each do it in their own way,” she said.

Teaching kids to tell fact from fiction worldwide

As the United States struggles to build standards and curriculums, other countries, like Finland, have a long history of adapting their education systems to the internet age.

Canada, possibly inspired by the work of Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, has taken media literacy instruction seriously for many years, making it mandatory in 1987. In 2023, MediaSmarts, Canada’s centre for media literacy, hosted the 18th annual Media Literacy Week to promote awareness and engagement.

France also instituted media literacy nationwide in the 1980s with the creation of the Center for Media and Information Literacy (CLEMI), which is part of the Ministry of Education. CLEMI trains thousands of teachers every year and hosts an annual Press and Media Week in Schools for over 18,000 schools since 1990.

Scandinavian countries appear to have made the greatest strides. Finland is widely believed to have the finest education system in the world, including a robust media literacy curriculum.

Finland ranks number one in the Open Society Institute’s Media Literacy Index 2023, which measures a country’s resilience to disinformation based on the quality of education, societal trust and media freedom.

The struggle to ensure a media literate world becomes more challenging as AI enhances the creation of false claims and photos and videos, adding to the hundreds of thousands of websites created every day.

Navigating such a vast information landscape is a relatively new skill for human beings, requiring an unprecedented capacity for inquiry, restraint and focus.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why should teaching media literacy not wait until high school?
  2. What media literacy skills could very young children be taught?
  3. Can you think of ways to teach media literacy in a math or science class?
Leedom head shot
Michael Leedom is an emergency physician based in Baltimore in the U.S. state of Maryland, and a fellow in the Dalla Lana Fellowship in Journalism and Health Impact at the University of Toronto.
 

 

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