May 31 2019

Teaching Media Literacy

Like many activist skeptics I have spoken to, on several occasions I have been summoned to jury duty, which was a short-lived experience. On voir dire I was asked what I do and the fact that I host a skeptical podcast came up. This lead to my almost instantaneous dismissal. Lawyers, apparently, don’t want a skeptical jury. They want jurors they can manipulate. Likewise, politicians often appreciate a pliable electorate, willing to internalize whatever slogan or propaganda they feed them. Democracy, however, functions best when citizens are informed and can think critically about the information politicians and their government are feeding them.

This is why there is so much hand-wringing over what many feel is a crisis of “fake news.” As is often pointed out, fake news is nothing new, but we do seem to be entering an era of “truth decay.” Media contains more appeals to emotion, and fewer verifiable facts. Social media is certainly playing a role in this, but of course it is complicated to fully define this. The prevailing question is – what do we do about it?

As CNN reports, Finland’s answer is to do something radical – teach media literacy to all citizens. As CNN also points out, Finland is a small homogeneous country with a particular culture and national identity, which means we cannot simply extrapolate their experience to other countries. The media landscape in the US, for example, is very different. But, there is also likely considerable overlap in the challenges being faced. Finland also faces Russian propaganda exploits, and is dealing with the same array of social media outlets as everyone else.

What is media literacy? The National Association for Media Literacy Education (which ironically has the horrible acronym NAMLE), defines media literacy as:

The ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, CREATE, and ACT using all forms of communication.

One example of good communication would be, for example, not overusing all caps. But seriously, the goal is essentially to teach critical thinking in the context of consuming all media. This goal might be familiar to the readers of this blog. This is also the exact topic of my recent book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to know what’s really real in a world increasingly full of fake. The subtitle is another way to frame media literacy.

Some basic principles of media literacy (again – critical thinking) are:

  • Question everything. Don’t believe something just because it feels right – especially if it feels right.
  • Think about the source of information. Is it a primary or secondary source? What are the likely biases of that source? Is it tied to an agenda? Is it authoritative?
  • Check multiple sources. Are all or most sources saying the same thing?
  • Try to track back to the original primary source, rather than trusting someone else’s summary.
  • Are the claims being made credible or plausible?
  • What does the actual evidence say? Distinguish this from how it is being interpreted, or what speculation is flowing from the data.
  • Are there any apparent attempts to manipulate your emotions? Are they appealing to any form of tribalism, fear, greed, or otherwise pushing emotional buttons? Are they using “click bait” headlines, or sensationalizing the facts?

One part of the challenge is that many people think they are critical thinkers, whether they are or not. But they only apply a questioning attitude toward claims they already disagree with, and give claims they like a free pass. Often they give their own tribe’s claims more than a free pass – they engage in motivated reasoning to champion those claims, no matter how implausible or counter-factual. Combine motivated reasoning with confirmation bias and subjective validation, and you get the powerful illusion of being correct. Further, this easily leads to the conclusion that the other side is not only wrong, they are evil. This in turn is easily exploitable with further media manipulation, stoking fears and hatred of our ideological foes, who are trying to destroy the world.

Teaching critical thinking from a young age, but also at all ages, should at least help moderate this phenomenon. The courses in Finland include assignments where students have to create their own fake news. This is a great idea. This is like teaching someone how to do magic tricks – they learn from doing how easy it is to fool other people. This is a short path to skepticism. Likewise, learning how to create fake news is a great way to learn how to detect it.

This all comes back to my opening paragraph – one of the challenges of implemented such an educational program in the US is that many politicians don’t want citizens with critical thinking skills. I know this sounds cynical, but I remind you that in 2012 the Texas GOP had this in their platform:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

They literally opposed teaching critical thinking because it might challenge fixed beliefs and authority figures. This attitude is likely not uncommon, just rarely so explicitly stated. What I fear is that any move to teach media literacy in the public schools will be fraught with political manipulation and pushback. It can easily be presented as an attempt to promote one political view over another. The challenge is essentially to teach politics in a politically neutral way. It can be done, but it is tricky. It’s a perilous path that seems to have a high likelihood of failure. But we need to try – we need, in fact, to make it a priority.

Media literacy may be the most important thing that today’s students learn. Seriously – it is the gateway to all other learning. Most of our knowledge now comes from media, not classrooms. Classrooms, in fact, are becoming quaint. What we need to teach students more than anything else is how to learn, how to access and evaluate information (oh, I’m sorry, how to ACCESS and EVALUATE information). Most of us now live with easy access to the collected knowledge of humanity, updated in real time. But useful and reliable information is buried under a mountain of misinformation and opinion. We need to give students the keys to that knowledge, and help them sort it from propaganda and lies.

I fear that just because it’s an obviously good thing we need to prioritize, that is not enough to make it happen. Perhaps we can frame it as competition with Finland. We can’t let those Finnish beat us in media literacy. We can be number one.


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