The way society consumes news media has changed. Gone are the days when newspapers and network anchors were widely esteemed and trusted sources of information on current events. Today, social media has an outsized impact on shaping people’s views, and partisan platforms allow viewers to pick and choose what is “reliable” based on their own preconceived ideas rather than facts, analysis and objective research.
In such an environment, conspiracy theories flourish, objective and knowable facts are often disputed, and polarization deepens. How does a society begin to push back on this dangerous tide of misinformation and build a path toward a shared understanding and collective agreement on what is–and isn’t–true?
One great place to start is with media literacy, a set of skills closely aligned to critical thinking, but distinct enough to be their own discipline. As organizations such as Media Literacy Now point out, being media literate in the 21st century means having the ability to decode media messages and assess their influence on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
There’s clear evidence that these skills can have a huge impact on people’s ability to identify and debunk the misinformation, disinformation and propaganda they counter in today’s media ecosystem.
This summer, the Reboot Foundation surveyed more than 500 Americans and explored the intersection of conspiracies, science knowledge, critical thinking and media literacy. The survey found that about 25 percent of participants were open to believing at least one of the conspiracy theories we tested. People who rely heavily on social media for their information were more likely to believe, as were people who identified as being politically conservative.
The survey also probed the participants’ exposure to media literacy principles in school, and found that people who had some media literacy education were 26 percent less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Other research backs this up. Simply, news-literacy gives people a fighting chance against conspiracy believers.
And there’s more good news. Reboot’s survey found that an overwhelming majority of the public – 84 percent – support requiring media literacy education in schools, and 90 percent said they supported required critical thinking in K-12.
As you might guess, the downside is that few people reported actually having learned media literacy in school: only 42 percent reported learning to analyze science news in high school, and just 38 percent said they reflected on media messages there.
Teaching the next generation to be media literate will require an investment of time and resources that match the challenge. Groups like the National Association for Media Literacy Education and Media Literacy Now are doing the hard work of creating resources for teachers, partnering with schools, and calling for new laws and regulations that will ensure that media literacy is part of every child’s education.
“We’re working at the local, state and national levels to support advocates and drive policy changes that elevate media literacy education as a priority,” said Erin McNeill, founder and president of Media Literacy Now. “A solid foundation in media literacy skills is essential to a young person’s health and well-being, and participation in the civic and economic life of our democracy.”
And they’re seeing success. Just in the last two years, five states – including Utah, Delaware, and Illinois – passed language requiring their education departments to address media literacy. Membership rolls for the National Association for Media Literacy Education have doubled over the last five years.
Twenty years ago, journalist Linda Ellerbee wrote that “media literacy is not just important, it’s absolutely critical. It’s going to make the difference between whether kids are a tool of the mass media or whether the mass media is a tool for kids to use.”
While it’s doubtful Ms. Ellerbee was envisioning our vast and confusing media ecosystem, her words nevertheless resonate today. In the fight against disinformation, media literacy is our best tool. It’s time to put it to work, everywhere.
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