Imagine sending a teenage driver onto a highway in an unfamiliar area, where road signs are in a foreign language, lanes change direction without warning, fog and rain obscure visibility, the car has faulty brakes, and the passengers are giving bad directions.
It’s also madness to let teens wander an information highway strewn with fabrications that obscure their path to credible information, distractions that lead them astray and conditions that hinder their ability to safely navigate an onslaught of misinformation.
The stakes of doing so are high, as we have seen with the flood of misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice protests—which literally puts our lives at risk and further inflames and divides us.
Misinformation surged in the lead-up to the presidential election, confusing and frustrating Americans and leaving many vulnerable to voter suppression tactics. The spread of false, fabricated and misleading content has only intensified in recent days as we await the results, further dividing our nation.
This false information is intended to deceive and do harm. It is particularly dangerous when disinformation comes not from foreign adversaries trying to sway opinion but from within our government and at the highest levels, as we are seeing now. It sows discord, inflames tempers and fuels distrust in our democracy.
A disrupted return to school this fall has only complicated our ability to teach our children how to protect themselves from the harm of misinformation and disinformation. We cannot afford to delay in providing young people with the ability and confidence to navigate our complex information landscape. To truly thrive, they must be able to discern fact from fiction, to distinguish news from opinion, and to make smart decisions about what to believe, share and act on. And while there is no driver training for the digital world, there is news literacy education.
News literacy—the ability to determine what is credible and what is not, to identify different types of information, and to use the standards of authoritative, fact-based journalism as an aspirational measure in determining what to trust—is a fundamental life skill, as essential to success in the classroom and in life as reading or math.
Yet, news literacy is not universally taught, largely because of systemic obstacles: It is not commonly part of curriculum standards, districts tend to focus on standardized testing and STEM, and lessons may be greatly limited or built around a textbook.
But these challenges are surmountable. If we want today’s students to become critical thinkers and informed adults engaged in our democracy, we need a mind shift when it comes to news literacy. We all must realize that news literacy is essential—a key component to success in college, in a career and in life.
When we, as educators, explore what news literacy education can achieve, we discover that it enhances our teaching and our students’ learning, even if it is not specifically indicated in the guidelines and practices stated above. I have seen this many times in my own classroom, where I teach history and U.S. government to high school students.
The critical thinking, research and digital discernment abilities news literacy imparts have broad and meaningful applications. For example, standardized testing, including the SAT and ACT, requires students to analyze texts and answer questions to gauge their understanding—skills that are intrinsic to becoming more news-literate. And, news literacy education equips students to track down credible sources, conduct meaningful research and confidently judge the reliability of information they encounter.
Once they have these skills, they will exercise them when casting a critical eye on events covered and issues discussed in history class, successfully stating their case in a term paper or exploring evidence of climate change for a science project.
When it comes to teaching news literacy with such a comprehensive approach, we can look to Finland. The Nordic country ranks at the top of European nations in resilience against misinformation.
An article in The Guardian earlier this year describes how Finland begins teaching information literacy in grade school, seamlessly integrating it across subjects. In math class, students learn how statistics can be used to distort. In art class, they see how an image’s meaning can be manipulated. In history, they examine propaganda, and in Finnish language classes, students learn how words can be used to confuse, mislead and deceive.
The results are clear: Finland leads Europe in successfully resisting misinformation and consistently ranks among the top 10 most-educated countries.
The U.S. must improve how it prepares students to be savvy information consumers and civically engaged adults. The implications are life-long.
To this end, the nonprofit Media Literacy Now has been working to promote legislation establishing advisory councils within state departments of education to ensure K-12 media literacy education is offered. Washington is poised to lead the way with Senate Bill 5594, which would establish a grant program to integrate media literacy into English, social studies or health curriculums.
Regardless of state borders, U.S. educators must take advantage of opportunities like those provided by the National Association for Media Literacy Education and the News Literacy Project, the national nonpartisan education nonprofit whose board I serve on, to help us succeed.
For good reason, we carefully prepare teenagers to safely navigate busy roads. Yet we do not prepare them to safely venture into the dizzying information infrastructure they have inherited from us. Simply put, we are doing this generation a grave disservice when we fail to teach news literacy.