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Media literacy in the digital age


By Sarah McRitchie

Fighting the spread of false information is one of the great challenges of the digital world. Media literacy skills may be our best combatant.

The ability to discern fact from fiction is an increasingly important skill at a time when misinformation and disinformation campaigns have plagued the internet and our social media networks.

Media literacy education seeks to teach people to critically analyze and evaluate various content and sources.

Michelle Lipkin, Executive Director of the National Association of Media Literacy Educators (NAMLE), said these are complicated and unprecedented times.

“In less than twenty years, our communication systems have radically altered with the rise of social media,” Lipkin said. “We are really in the midst of a reckoning and we need to determine who we will be in a world that is dominated by digital tools and media messages.”

The way we respond to disinformation is critical, Lipkin said.

“Partly, it’s the platforms thinking very seriously about what they do with this content and how they label this content,” Lipkin said. “Partly, it’s the public recognizing their own responsibility.”

University of Toledo Communications Professor Paulette Kilmer said much of our media illiteracy problems start with public acceptance of the idea that news is written from a perspective.

“I think that happened mostly because people wanted to believe what coincides with their own thinking,” Kilmer said. “A lot of times it’s ‘shoot the messenger’ when they do not like what is in the news report, they decide it has to be biased.”

She said she thinks the public having an understanding of journalistic practices can help people differentiate between real and fake information.

Carolyn Clifford, News Anchor for Detroit’s WXYZ news station, said credible sources are fair and let the facts lead.

“To be fair if you give a Republican time, you need to give a Democrat time,” Clifford said. “It is fair and balanced always, whether it’s political or anything else.”

Sometimes it takes more than one set of eyes to look at a story and watch it from start to finish to make sure any bias does not come through, Clifford said.

UT Information Literacy Coordinator Elaine Reeves, said the standard tool she recommends for evaluating the validity of information is the CRAAP test, created by librarians. The acronym prompts users to consider the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of the source at hand.

“Students have to understand that there is a purpose for everything. People aren’t just being nice,” Reeves said.“They may be disseminating information, but they’re disseminating it for a purpose.”

People should use multiple sources to corroborate information, Reeves said. The UT library website has access to the academic search complete database for reliable materials.

“What I say to students is ‘start with Google, but finish with the library,” Reeves said. “The library has resources we want students to come and use on a regular basis.”

Professor Kilmer said we can point out how journalism serves the public and tells the truth if we can get media literacy taught starting in kindergarten. Media literacy is needed to know where trusted information can be found and how to avoid confirmation bias, she said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate and Minnesota Senator, introduced the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act in July. The legislation, co-sponsored by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, would appropriate $20 million for developing K-12 media literacy education if passed.

NAMLE has endorsed the legislation.

A press release from Sen. Klobuchar’s office focused on the legislation as a means of combating information warfare and foreign interference campaigns. 

“Adversaries are targeting our democracy with sophisticated information campaigns designed to divide Americans and undermine our political system. One of the best ways we can fight back is to give people the tools they need to identify these disinformation campaigns and that begins with educating students,” the press release read.

Educators agree that here is a responsibility of both individuals and tech companies to impede the spread of false information.

Professor Kilmer said Facebook’s inclusion of a fact-checking disclaimer below posts with misinformation is not effective enough. If the company or its fact-checkers know a post is not true it should be taken down altogether, she said.

“One of the problems with Facebook and false information is it gets mixed in with the atmosphere of trust and the expectation that we’re getting information from our friends,” Kilmer said. 

The conversation around the social networks’ role in addressing the spread of falsehoods sets the backdrop for the criticism Facebook is receiving for its decision to allow political advertisements with false or misleading information. 

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, told the House Financial Services Committee last week that “our policy is that we do not fact-check politicians’ speech and the reason for that is we believe that in a democracy, it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.”

Facebook has a responsibility to verify the accuracy of political ads, Reeves said. “A lot of people are going to assume that if it is posted, it is accurate.”

Professor Kilmer said Facebook should not be able to run political ads and that the platform should withdraw from politics entirely because of the foreign interference in the 2016 elections through disinformation campaigns.

“Very clever foreign agents posted all kinds of destructive stuff and people believed it was true,” Kilmer said. “There are a lot of deliberately deceptive sources that are hiding in the shadows of a free press, some using the concept of free press against its original intentions.”

When the platforms fail to identify or eliminate misinformation and disinformation, a citizenry equipped with media literacy skills can still find truth.

“Our challenge is to motivate our citizens to care and understand that freedom of expression is vital to our existence, but it also means we need to be responsible,” Kilmer said. “If we can recognize news, then the pretenders and fakers are not going to succeed.”

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