Politics and media have always been surrounded by falsehoods, conspiracies, and dishonesty. But with the rise of widespread communications tools, like the Internet and social media, we have reached a state of emergency. Now, in an effort to combat the spread of lies, universities and schools across the country are taking steps to make media literacy part of their curricula.
People spreading propaganda to influence the outcome of an election or sway the minds of voters is not new.. Before the Internet, people would use tabloids, hand out pamphlets, and spread falsehood through speech. In 2012, people used social media to spread fake news stories, but they were buried so far in our search engines that they were less prevalent and easily depicted as false.
Rise of Fake News in 2016
In 2016, however, fake news began to effectively infiltrate our political system. The 1.94 billion active Facebook users started to share media aimlessly. In the last few months leading up to the 2016 election, fake news generated more likes, shares, and engagement than major news sources. From August to November 8, Election Day, the top 20 fake news articles provoked 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. In contrast, the top 20 stories from the 19 major news sources generated just 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. The increasing number of clicks on the fake news stories drove them to the top of Google search pages. And for some people, high traffic is enough to validate a source.
In the 2016 election, fake news duped many, many voters. It was easy for people to disregard the opinions of their crazy neighbor. But testing the validity of every news article is not something people were accustomed to.
Need for Media Literacy Education
We are in the depths of the information age. Although Facebook and other social media websites are taking strides to filter out false information, the continuous spread of fake news is inevitable. We can no longer rely on the Internet to tell the truth. Instead, we must educate citizens and give them the tools to detect the veracity of information.
“Media literacy education is essential today, more than ever, because of the unlimited ways that we can receive information,” Larry Atkins, journalist and professor of journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University, told TUN. “Anyone with a cell phone or a computer can disseminate information. During the 2016 presidential election, there was a flood of fake news stories that were intentionally generated in order to advance a political agenda or to make money from website clicks. Even highly educated people with advanced degrees can fall for these made up stories and share them with their friends on social media.”
Media Literacy Programs
Many universities are now implementing programs to teach students news literacy. One of the first universities to do so was Stony Brook University in New York. The university created the Center for News Literacy in 2006, which implemented programs and developed curricula at middle and high schools in New York to teach students to become better news analysts. This program has inspired many universities and schools across the country.
Jonathan Anzalone is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University. He reminds us that “reliable information is essential to our day-to-day lives.” “Representative democracy requires a well-informed citizenry to function,” said Anzalone.
Thanks to new communication technologies, news consumers have more power than ever before to share information and even produce news, and with this power comes the responsibility to share facts.
The responsibility to teach media literacy falls in the hands of our educators. In an article for Philly.com, Atkins goes into detail about emerging associations pushing forward media literacy education:
“The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), located in New Jersey, publishes a literacy education journal and sponsors a Media Literacy Week every November. The Center for Media Literacy, in California, offers guidance, information, and teaching methods, including a MediaLit Kit to promote critical thinking about media. Media Literacy Now empowers grassroots efforts by providing policy and advocacy information, expertise, and resources to develop state laws that implement media literacy education in schools.”
Additionally, many universities and organizations have taken steps to implement media literacy education. NAMLE lists 21 universities with programs specializing in media literacy. Accompanying the universities are major news and media sources, like PBS, and even faith-based groups, such as, the Presbyterian Media Mission.
“Media literacy programs at all levels can give students the tools to become savvy news and media consumers,” said Atkins. “They teach students how to analyze and evaluate news sources. This tends to lead to better, more authoritative research and better papers. It also makes them better informed citizens in general.”
Barriers to Media Literacy Programs
But implementing new programs and classes into universities is no easy task. There are barriers that hold back installation of such programs. “The first, and probably most significant barrier, is a shortage of resources,” said Anzalone. “Our Center for News Literacy was made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation. Many department budgets are stretched thin, and without access to outside funding, the addition of a News Literacy course may not be feasible.”
Anzalone adds that universities are constantly competing for students’ time and that a mandatory news literacy course would force students to take time away from their other disciplines or studies. As a result, Stony Brook University has been focusing primarily on bringing news literacy to middle and high school students.
Solutions for Media Literacy
Due to a lack of resources and students’ unwillingness to take time away from core studies, some universities have implemented small-scale solutions. “In some cases, aspects of media literacy are taught in individual classes or a research librarian comes and gives a guest lecture on the topic for a class,” said Atkins.
Earlier this year, the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism (CUNY J-School) launched the News Integrity Initiative. CUNY J-School partners include tech leaders such as Facebook, academic institutions, and many others from around the world.
State governments, including California, are also taking steps to push through legislature addressing the need for media literacy education. The intent of the California State and Assembly bills is to conjoin a board of educators, librarians, media experts, and others to develop media literacy curriculum to teach K-12 students in California.
When fake news generates more attention than that of major news sources, actions must be taken to correct the situation. People can’t sit idly and let false information dictate life and politics. Media literacy education will give people the the tools they need to separate the lies from the facts. Truth promotes beneficial growth.