Media Literacy Education in the Misinformation Age

Fake News isn’t a new problem, but it is a rising problem.

It’s a problem in which interest has waxed and waned over the centuries and gone by many names: yellow journalism, clickbait, hoax. Here’s a write-up on some fake letters published by Ben Franklin in 1782 in London to influence peace negotiations.

Donald Trump has said that he invented the term Fake News, but even if that isn’t true, he did undeniably popularize the term.  We might owe him a bit of thanks for that.

Prior to 2016, who was talking about Fake News? Not many – and in a sense, this change may well be a net positive to us, because even though discussion was limited, our media was nonetheless filled with half-truths and outright lies. Honest reporting may still exist, but it increasingly drowned out with ‘curated truths’ and biased info-tainment – and this trend has been escalating for decades.

Although some people were talking about modern media lies the in pre-Trump era (Jon Stewart is a famous example), we lacked the pithy branding that “Fake News” provides.  Donald Trump, by branding the problem so neatly, has made our media misinformation problem easier to talk about – and people are definitely talking about it.

All over the world, politicians, reporters, entertainers, and everyday people are talking about Fake News.  There are some very different ideas about what media might be Fake News, but I see it as an overall good thing that people at least agree that it is a problem, and that they are talking about it.  Until that happens, nothing can be done to fix it.

For teenagers, the idea of Fake News is something that they have grown up with.  It’s a normal part of the world for them, and many can only hazily remember a world before then-candidate Trump popularized the idea of fake news.

As teachers and educators, information media literacy matters.  If a democracy in the 19th century relied on a literate, engaged, and educated population, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, then a democracy in the 21st century requires citizens who understand how much of what they see is false – this is a defining aspect of media literacy in our time. Nothing can be taken at face value; everything must be questioned.

Media Literacy education focuses on the development of critical thinking and assessment.  Our students learn to ask key questions and how to do research to make up their own minds on the truth of an issue.  They quickly learn that everything is biased, and how to discover sources of bias and use that knowledge to weigh the value of different perspectives.

Our children accept that Fake News is a real thing – and it is easy to see that they are right.  But what’s most troubling is how truly difficult it can be to tell what’s real and what’s fake, and this leads to an even larger problem: if it takes too much work to tell the difference, then many people will just give up entirely without trying.

To prevent this, we need to actively train this generation of students, and each subsequent generation, with the skills necessary to tell true from false, real from fake, truth from lies.  It is absolutely true that there are powerful interests in the world putting their resources into polluting our media world with lies, conflict, and misdirection – we need to answer their efforts with our own.

Media Literacy education should focus on the deep analysis of current topics and articles.  There is constantly something in the global and local news that can be used to hone our students’ skills, and lessons are made all the more rich by being topical and relevant.

Media Literacy education should also focus on informed inquiry through research and practical questioning skills. Teach our students to question everything, and how to find answers to those questions.  These core, foundational skills are transferrable to many areas of life.

I’ve taught Media Literacy as a high school elective course, but its principles can be integrated into many core subjects from elementary school on up. We owe it to this generation and others to give them the tools that they will need to successfully navigate the misinformation age.