Our public square isn’t what it used to be. But, if schools lead the way, media literacy education can help us rebuild civic society.
If the damage to public discourse wasn’t clear already, the recent controversy over political advertising on social media platforms surely drove the point home. While Twitter’s Jack Dorsey announced a ban on such advertising, Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s decision to keep hosting political ads without subjecting it to rigorous fact-checking.
Whatever the merit of these decisions, it’s clear that the nation can no longer take for granted a transparent “marketplace of ideas” in the public sphere. With varying platforms for news and political discourse, as well as micro-targeted content and media bubbles, Americans increasingly can’t assume a generally shared experience of facts.
As a nation, we must adjust, but our schools remain woefully behind in doing so. As a recent report on fake news put out by the Reboot Foundation, which I founded, suggests, the country is still at square one when it comes to media literacy in schools and critical-thinking education.
Our analysis at the Reboot Foundation of National Assessment of Education Progress survey data, for example, found that more than a third of middle school students say they “rarely” or “never” learn the skills to judge the reliability of sources.
There is hope, however. Increasingly, some states are dedicating funds to the teaching of media literacy skills, and many organizations are committed to helping, including Media Literacy Now and the News Literacy Project.
Our own analysis at the foundation found that even simple interventions can help. After reading an article or watching a short video, participants in our study were better able to identify misinformation.
Still, schools often remain behind on implementation, especially for marginalized students. A recent study by the Stanford History Education Group tested high schoolers on a broad range of media literacy skills, including identifying misinformation and determining the reliability of sources. The researchers found that two-thirds remained at a “beginning” level, as opposed to showing “emerging” or “mastery” skills.
The deficits were more serious among underserved student populations, with Black students, those receiving free school lunches and those with less-educated parents performing worse than their more privileged peers. As media literacy programs are developed and implemented, we must keep in mind this “civics gap.”
Media literacy is not merely a technical skill, though. Some have called for curricula that teach students to analyze sources like fact-checkers. That’s an admirable goal—and a good way to think about robust media literacy.
After all, good fact-checkers are trained in the habits of researching and analyzing arguments. They take time to expose themselves to alternative points of view and the best arguments from each side. They learn to be wary of and humble about their own biases, the tacit assumptions they may be making and the limits of their knowledge.
In addition to teaching students how to navigate the ever-changing media landscape, educators must make sure students are also learning how to think by devoting time and resources to developing their critical-thinking skills. Students must also learn about how their democracy works so that we have a shared democratic culture—and a shared set of facts.
In its early years, the internet was championed as an inherently liberating and democratic tool. Now many see it as the opposite: a morass of misinformation, vitriol and advertising that is undermining democracy. But the internet is not inherently anything. It is what we make of it. To improve public debate online, we have to commit to media literacy. Reviving the public square is up to us.