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The importance of media literacy in the age of fake news

By Ann Nordby

Fake news is an article that tells a lie. But calling an article “fake” doesn't mean that it's a lie. How can anyone tell the difference? By acquiring a few critical thinking skills and becoming a savvy media consumer.

My colleague Jessica Russo has blogged about the importance of civil discourse. I couldn't agree more. In addition to being able to discuss their differences, young people also need to be able to decipher the media messages they are receiving.

It’s a myth that anyone with common sense is media literate. Nobody is born with this skill, just as no one is born knowing how to read. Media literacy is the ability to understand media messages, how they are constructed and why they are being sent. It’s a 21st century skill, essential for participating in the workforce and a democracy.

Sadly, a recent Stanford University study revealed that most young people in the U.S. don't have this skill. In an 18-month study of middle school, high school and university students in 12 states, researchers came away shocked at how easily young people could be duped. “We worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish,” the authors wrote. A study in the U.K. found that only 2% of children could detect fake news.

Children under age 10 don't have the intellectual development to differentiate between fact, fiction and opinion. This is the reason that marketing to children under age 14 is highly regulated. Older youth are better at discerning advertising from storytelling. But even heavy users don't automatically acquire media literacy skills. The Stanford study proves it.

Many of us think of "digital natives" as experts, but clearly, they are not. Media literacy can be learned, and we should be teaching it.
  • Even very young children can acquire skills. Common Sense Media has some good activities online, for example.
  • The 4-H program emphasizes the development of critical thinking skills. 4-H youth gain these skills when they take part in judging, reflection and other activities. As they do, they sort through information to find meaning and connect ideas. For example, my colleague Carrie Ann Olson teaches 4-H consumer decision making. In it, youth learn to understand marketing messages.
  • Another way to better understand media messages is to create them. By producing their own videos, young people learn that media are constructed and that messages are written and shaped by people. They learn to tell a flimsy argument from a sound one. Youth programs can easily incorporate fun media production activities using inexpensive equipment like smartphones and free editing software.
  • Putting limits on youths' screen time is not the solution. The goal should be intelligent use.
  • Luckily for us locally, Minnesota is among the few states to include media literacy in the educational standards for schools. Since 2012, it’s in the Minnesota K-12 core curriculum.

My hope is that Americans are waking up to the need for a media literate population. Media literacy does not absolve liars from their responsibilities. And we still need laws that prohibit slander, libel and false advertising claims. But we also need the skills to sort through the constant stream of messages we are receiving.

-- Ann Nordby, online communications & learning

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Ann, I love the idea of having youth better understand media messages by creating them. Thanks for that idea.

  2. Yes, as you know, learning by doing, also known as experiential learning, is one of the things that the 4-H program does well. When it comes to communications, anytime you make media you realize the choices that video producers make, and the effect it has on the overt message. For example, the addition of sad music versus funny music gives the video context, or mood. If you've never made a video, you might not realize that the video producer made that choice, and thus teed up an emotion for you to have while you're listening to the words being spoken.

  3. Ann, What a timely and succinct blog post -- thank you for this!

    Here's another relevant report that just came out:

  4. The U.K. government has clearly recognized the problems that bad actors can cause when most people lack media literacy skills. This looks like they're addressing those problems. Good for them.
    The summary says "In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices. "
    So true! Thanks for sharing this very fresh report!

  5. Hi Ann, As a person with a background in human development, I am so happy that you pointed out that younger youth developmentally are not ready to understand the distinction between real and fake news. There is important brain development that needs to happen, which is why so much media literacy skills are aimed at older adolescents. I think with younger kids, it's important to start these conversations but also empower adults in children's lives to help them make good media decisions. I tell my kids that I provide some boundaries until their brains are ready to put in their own boundaries.

  6. And sadly, just because a person is developmentally ready to acquire those skills, doesn't mean that they do! Another new study showed that the people most likely to share fake news are those over 65. Even smart and highly educated people didn't learn media literacy when they were in school because there was no need.

    It's quite right for you to put up boundaries, and I'm sure you will encourage them to think critically about what they see online. Now that most young people have computers in their pockets, critical thinking skills - including media literacy - are essential.


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