News literacy essential in sorting real from fake
By Susan Megna
There is mounting concern that today's unprecedented spread of media misinformation and disinformation is weakening democracy. In October, the UAlbany New York State Writer's Institute presented a provocative event, "Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World," which brought together 30 media, legal and historical writers with diverse viewpoints on issues in journalism and news media. Six panels were set up for expert discourse on topics such as fake news, election "mischief," First Amendment rights, racism.
The dialogue was informative – and unsettling.
The audience asked: "As non-journalists, what can we do about this? How do we recognize and promote trustworthy reporting? How can we know that our own beliefs and opinions are built on truth?" The experts gave consistent answers: Be news literate. Choose reliable news sources. Practice critical thinking.
Easier said than done.
The news landscape today is broad and unruly, an informational wild west. We can choose to get news via network or cable TV; print or online newspapers, magazines and periodicals; cell phones or tablets; public radio; podcasts; blogs, etc. News is distributed by media and tech uber-corporations (CBS, Comcast, 21st Century Fox, News Corp, Time Warner, Disney, Google, Facebook, YouTube); public television and radio; scores of alternative, internet-based, for-profit or not-for-profit outlets. I can find a news source that matches my preferences as a liberal or conservative, working class member, Latina, Jewish, black, white, LGBT, gender-specific, faith-based, whatever. And we all have access to platforms like Twitter or Facebook that allow pretty much anything to be put out in public space — and be instantly and widely shared as news.
News literacy is not new, but it is harder than ever to practice. A 2016 Stanford University study, "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning," found that students in middle schools, high schools and colleges across 12 states are strikingly ill-equipped to assess whether the information on their phones, tablets or computers is credible. That is frightening. Since the Writer's Institute event, nearly every day brings concerns about the integrity of information on social media, and the complexities and ambiguities about how these problems might be rectified without compromising free speech. When we consider that a recent Pew Research Center survey estimates that two-thirds of adult Americans get some or most news from social media, the scope of the problem becomes larger and more alarming.
What can we do at the individual level? While Congress does its work to get Facebook and Google to better vet their content, the rest of us should make sure we can spot the difference between legitimate journalism and other "news." We need to learn and teach the distinctions (often subtle) between news reporting and opinion, between evidence and inference. We should think about whether the news we choose is doing more than fueling our personal biases (we all have them). We should seek out multiple sources and opposing viewpoints to help us think broadly, outside our personal experience, and understand other perspectives.
Parents should ask what schools are doing to teach good habits about news and information, about the value of discourse, about how to consider opposing points of view, about critical thinking, and about civics. This is hard stuff, and many teachers these days are overwhelmed and unprepared to do this well. Yet resources are being developed in schools and colleges across the country, disseminated by organizations such as the Stony Brook Center for News Literacy, Media Literacy Now, Common Sense, TEDEd, and many others.
And in times like these, parents can and should learn these important skills right along with their children.
Susan Megna lives in Castleton, NY. She recently retired from the State Education Department.