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Perspective | Digital media confront schools as ‘truth decay’ persists

Before the coronavirus outbreak and the 2020 elections, Stanford University researchers asked 3,446 U.S. high school students, drawn from a pool that included 309 in North Carolina, to perform six online skill exercises, such as evaluating a video and a tweet. From its report published in November 2019, here’s a finding from one exercise:

“Fifty-two percent of students believed a grainy video claiming to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries (the video was actually shot in Russia) constituted ‘strong evidence’ of voter fraud in the U.S…. (O)nly three students tracked down the source of the video, even though a quick search turns up a variety of articles exposing the ruse.”

In promoting January 22-28 as National News Literacy Week, the News Literacy Project drew from the analysis of the Stanford History Education Group, which declared: “Education moves slowly. Technology doesn’t. If we don’t act with urgency, our students’ ability to engage in civic life will be the casualty.”

National News Literacy Week was sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan News Literacy Project and Scripps, a company that shifted over time from a newspaper chain to a major TV broadcasting enterprise.

The week also seemed an appropriate moment to recall the 2018 RAND “truth decay” report amid the prolonged pandemic marked by widespread, and often unwarranted, distrust of facts, science, and public institutions. In January 2018, the RAND Corporation, a mega-think tank based in California, highlighted the term “truth decay” in a 324-page report, warning that decline in faith in trustworthy news sources and fundamental disagreement over facts impose high costs to American society. The RAND scholars decried the “crowding out of civics education and the reduced time spent on training students in critical-thinking skills.”

The Pew Research Center reports that 77% of Americans age 18 to 29 prefer to get news from digital devices and that 90% consume news at least sometimes on a smartphone, computer, or tablet. This demographic cohort will surely hasten the transition away from traditional print and broadcast.

From her experience in mentoring university students for more than a decade, Erica Beshears Perel says she has found young people “pretty savvy” in gliding through social media and the internet. Perel spent more than a decade as an adviser and general manager of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at UNC-Chapel Hill. Now she is director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

Students, she says, are “not reading a lot of local news.” My own experience in teaching first-year seminars at UNC aligns with her observation. To get to know students, I would ask how they got news and what they read. The daily email roundups by CNN, The New York Times, and were regularly mentioned. But I was taken aback during a pre-pandemic seminar when several students said they read the Daily Mail — meaning the online version of the British tabloid of large-type headlines and celebrity photos.

“If I were in high school, I would be teaching the idea of an intentional news diet,” said Perel. Indeed, no longer as reliant as their elders on a morning newspaper or the 6 o’clock TV news, middle and high school students bearing smartphones would benefit from teachers who guide them in applying critical thinking to select for themselves a half dozen or so diverse yet factually reliable online news sources.

In its February issue, Scientific American explores differences and debates over approaches to media literacy education, saying continuing research is needed as well as professional development for teachers, even as schools face the “one big challenge” of expanding their programs. The journal cites a British study finding that “Age 14 is when kids often start believing in unproven conspiratorial ideas.”

The American Bar Association has weighed in with a three-part essay urging a study of journalism as an integral element of civics courses. Students, says the ABA paper, should “learn to be critical consumers of online information” and develop “the discernment to identify high-quality information about issues of public concern.”

Public schools are institutions of democratic infrastructure in which the vast majority of American young people encounter civics and history. When taught with insight and zest, social studies prepare young people with both practical knowledge and experience in critical thinking, through readings and writing assignments, discussions and debates with peers.

News Literacy Week serves as a reminder of the important role for schools in instilling in students a stronger grasp of the risks and rewards of  digital media — as well as a burgeoning desire to participate in the life of their communities, states, and nation.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.