We’ve been spending a lot of time discussing media literacy and fake news in our advanced reporting classes at Fresno State, and my students have been working to increase their skills in identifying phony news content and evaluating the veracity of other sites they encounter online.
But as these students gain knowledge on the subject, they also have observed the lack of media literacy among high school and college students they come in contact with. You can add the public in general to those lacking basic media literacy skills.
Students researching this problem have every right to be worried. A study by the Stanford History Education Group of high school students revealed that 90 percent of students received no credit on four of six tasks that gauged students’ ability to evaluate digital sources on the internet. The report’s authors said the results are “troubling,” especially considering this is a generation that has grown up with the internet and is considered digitally savvy.
But adults age 65 and older also are not especially media savvy, and often share false news content on their platform of choice, Facebook, according to one research project. So this is not just a generational problem.
So what is media literacy? The National Association for Media Literacy Education has this definition: “Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. In its simplest terms, media literacy builds upon the foundation of traditional literacy and offers new forms of reading and writing.”
At the Institute for Media and Public Trust, improving media literacy and developing strategies to identify fake news are crucial parts of our mission. We have previously posted these eight tips for identifying fake news:
- Look past your personal biases. This is crucial in sorting out content. We often believe the worst about people or politicians we despise. Those biases can blind us to what we are sharing on social media, even if there are red flags that suggest the stories may not be factual.
- Do you recognize the source of the news item? Be skeptical if it comes from a source that you’ve never heard of. That doesn’t mean it’s false, and it could come from an obscure but legitimate news outlet. But take extra time to confirm the facts on sites you may not recognize.
- Use search engines to see if anyone else is reporting this particular story. If it is as big a story as being promoted in the headline or share text on a social media site, surely other news outlets will have a version of the story.
- Check the link in your browser. Many fake news sites try to mimic actual news sites. The link might have a slight variation from the legitimate news site. If the link looks odd, that’s another red flag.
- Look at other stories on the website. Does the content pass the “smell test?” Check out the writing style. Do the stories on the site have excessive capital letters, exclamation points, obvious grammatical errors, or other oddities that suggest the content may not be reliable?
- Read the “Contact Us” and “About Us” Links. Are they working, and do they give information that is helpful? Can you email the story’s author?
- Go to fact-checking sites. Use them to see what they say about the news story before you post it on social media. Try factcheck.org, snopes.com, politifact.com, or other fact-checking sites. And if you have questions about the quality of a particular fact-checking site, use multiple fact-checking sites to verify the information.
- Be skeptical. It will help make you a smart news consumer.
We believe media literacy is so important that we have been working with local schools, including the Fresno Unified School District and the Fresno County Office of Education, on ways to push media literacy into the high school curriculum. We also are working with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office on the need to have a statewide strategy on media and news literacy. We also have plans to offer a small grant to do a deeper dive into media literacy on the Fresno State campus.
The New York Times recently had an article on news literacy and fake news. “News, or media, literacy — how to critically understand, analyze and evaluate online content, images and stories — is not new,” wrote reporter Alina Tugend. “But it has taken on urgency in the last few years as accusations of fake news and the reality of disinformation permeate the internet and people — especially young ones — spend hours and hours a day looking at screens.”
Tugend said research shows that a lack of media literacy “leads to two equally unfortunate outcomes”: “People believe everything that suits their preconceived notions, or they cynically disbelieve everything. Either way leads to a polarized and disengaged citizenry.”
At our Media Institute, we believe strongly that an informed public is crucial to our democracy, and citizens must know how to smartly access digital information to participate fully in our public institutions. We are not pushing a political philosophy, but want to arm citizens with the skills to identify false content, and not inadvertently pass it on.