By: Jamie Gregory
Misinformation is not a new phenomenon. What’s new is how easy it has become to manipulate information (think deep fakes and “sock puppets”) and spread it widely and quickly. So it seems logical that some state legislators are considering new initiatives aimed at specifying how media literacy skills should be taught in schools.
While media literacy is not a traditional stand-alone content area, like science or English, the school librarian profession has traditionally been dedicated to teaching students how to find and use reliable information. However, not all schools have a school librarian, or one with an adequate budget or space. But it is true that some state standards incorporate elements of information literacy into content-area standards. South Carolina’s English Language Arts (ELA) standards to include a strand related to inquiry-based learning. Some address critical thinking and media literacy (grades 9-12):
- Standard 3.3: Gather information from a variety of primary and secondary sources and evaluate for perspective, validity, and bias.
- Standard 4.1: Employ a critical stance to analyze relationships and patterns of evidence to confirm conclusions.
- Standard 4.2: Evaluate findings; address conflicting information; identify misconceptions; and revise.
In an email interview, Frank Baker, media literacy consultant, pointed out that Texas has strong English Language Arts standards with integrated media literacy skills: “Students use comprehension skills to analyze how words, images, graphics, and sounds work together in various forms to impact meaning.” Also, Texas Social Studies standards include more detailed references to media literacy skills: “locate and use primary and secondary sources such as computer software, databases, media and news services, biographies, interviews, and artifacts to acquire information.”
Even the terms critical thinking, information literacy, media literacy are sometimes used interchangeably. However, Baker suggests that media literacy encompasses much more than information literacy: “It involves understanding techniques of persuasion (propaganda), advertising, the language of film, representation, economics, news and much more.”
Another barrier to media literacy instruction is standardized testing. Many teachers are so concerned with standardized testing that they focus on “teaching to the test,” particularly by using computer programs or online practice programs purchased by the school district. Teachers can hardly be faulted for this as they react to pressure from school districts and the state itself when scrutinized for test scores.
What we see is that despite some of these standards and school librarians’ best efforts, young people are increasingly unable to distinguish among trustworthy sources of information online. The 2016 study from the Stanford History Education Group has perhaps become the most-shared source of statistics. Be sure to read the 2019 report which found that “ninety-six percent of students did not consider why ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen that website’s credibility.” I’m not sure we should be surprised by this finding, though. We know that many politicians push climate change as a “hoax” in order to secure votes and funding from certain industries.
A bill in South Carolina sponsored by state Representative Seth Rose (D) would require the State Department of Education to form an advisory committee to evaluate what schools are already implementing in terms of media literacy education and to create best practices resources which would be available online. Read the bill here. Most interesting to me is the last item: “Media literacy resources must consist of a balance of sources and perspectives.” This is where it gets tricky.
What if the state standards themselves do not promote accurate information? I pointed out in my previous blog post that South Carolina’s code of laws prohibits teachers from discussing homosexuality except in the context of sexually transmitted diseases. So how, as a teacher, can I promote critical thinking skills at the same time as create a context in which I ignore homosexuals except in terms of sexually transmitted diseases? Do I become biased if I present information sources which represent homosexuals fairly and accurately and humanely?
Tennessee State Representative Micah Van Huss (R) recently filed a bill in the Tennessee State Legislature which “recognizes CNN and the Washington Post as fake news and condemns them for denigrating our citizens.” The bill itself is full of inflammatory, emotional wording and accusations, which is what many educators warn their students about when guarding themselves against propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation. But here, it’s the wording of a bill in a state legislature. I’m not sure what the bill would actually accomplish. But the implication is clear: a state government needs to tell its constituents which news sources are credible. And it’s all bogus, based on the disinformation it purports to protect citizens against. Yes, this is an outlier. But it’s still actually happening and would be a very dangerous type of censorship.
Our students do need to be able to differentiate fact from fiction. But sometimes the adults can’t either. So where does that leave us?
Right now, my focus is on using specific examples with students in order to build their skills. Start with the News Literacy Project, which provides a depth and breadth of resources to address media literacy skills. Also try Civic Online Reasoning from the Stanford History Education Group. Instead of limiting the availability of sources of information, learn to analyze them. Adopt stakeholders’ positions to determine why certain people hold the beliefs they do.
And pay attention to what your state legislature may be labeling as “dangerous” news sources.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.