Commentary

News media literacy is more important than ever

January 23, 2023 5:45 am

In Missouri, House Bill 492 , the “Media Literacy and Critical Thinking Act,” would require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish a pilot program for the 2024-25 and 2025-26 school years in five to seven schools (Photo by scanrail/iStock images).

This week has been designated as “National News Literacy Week.” It could not be more important or timely as we continue to be bombarded with misinformation, disinformation and downright lies in all corners of the public square.

What is most alarming is the utter disregard and disrespect for facts and truth practiced and tolerated by many of the very people we look to and count on tell us like it is.

What is “National News Literacy Week”, and when did it start?

The primary purpose, now in its fourth year, is to stop the proliferation of false information and teach consumers how to identify trustworthy news sources and content.

The week is dedicated to reclaiming credibility, rebuilding public trust and addressing the steps being taken to sustain those goals moving forward. The focus will be on fact gathering and the reporting processes to emphasize the openness and transparency required, all of which is so critical to building a trustworthy relationship with the public.

Another primary goal is to inspire citizens, educators and students to learn how to become smart consumers of information.

How do we prepare ourselves and future generations to critically analyze and assess the information we are receiving from various sources and determine its accuracy and  credibility?

That is where media literacy comes in.

Media literacy is not a new concept, and its meaning has evolved over time. In addition to developing the ability to evaluate messages and information from various sources, it is just as important to learn how to develop and use messages and dialogue effectively.

Media literacy is critical to the survival and perpetuation of a healthy democracy.

In many ways as consumers — and victims — of message bombardment, we are way behind the curve.

Even when we just had access to newspapers, radio and television, there was a lot to sort through, to understand and to absorb. You may recall early efforts to manage access and viewing, primarily of children.

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But today, with 24-hour TV programming, myriad options to access all kinds of information on a plethora of media outlets and the Internet with all of its unlimited information and reach, it is easy to be overwhelmed and misled.

How can one achieve medial literacy and become a smart consumer?

Consulting multiple media sources to compare the coverage or treatment of the same issues or events, in many instances, could be helpful in determining where facts and truths lie.

But media literacy involves so much more.

Since 1997, the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLA) has worked to empower all citizens to be able to evaluate all forms of public communication, and to become smart consumers and practitioners.

NAMLA advocates offering media literacy education as early as grade school and throughout high school, and encourages setting aside a “Media Literacy Week.”  Age-appropriate resources and tools are provided to assist students, educators, librarians, community organizations and parents.

Congress and many state legislatures have gotten involved to improve media literacy.

Congressional Bill H.R. 4668, the “Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act,” was introduced in 2019. The bill instructs the Department of Education to provide grants to state and local educational agencies to promote media literacy and digital citizenship.

The specific purpose of the bill is show citizens how to access, analyze, evaluate the accuracy of media content and information, and make educated decisions about “products and services, education, health, and wellness based on information obtained from media and digital sources.”

The bill is still in committee, awaiting passage by the House of Representatives.

In June 2022, the U.S. Senate introduced a similar bill, Senate Bill S.4490. But it focuses specifically on providing media literacy education to elementary and secondary school students.

It directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to provide grants to state and local educational agencies, public libraries, and qualified nonprofit organizations to “develop and promote media literacy and digital citizenship education for elementary and secondary school students.” Passage is pending.

In 2017, eleven states introduced bills to address media literacy education to improve students skills. Various states emphasize and support different aspects of media literacy.

In Missouri, House Bill 492 , the “Media Literacy and Critical Thinking Act,” would require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish a pilot program for the 2024-25 and 2025-26 school years in five to seven schools.

The pilot in addition to addressing media literacy, must develop strategies for student learning in classroom curricula, and demonstrate various literacy strategies used. The bill requires that a report be compiled and submitted to the legislature when the pilot ends in June 2026.

What happens in Missouri schools when it comes to media literacy learning long-term will likely be determined after the pilot is completed.

On Jan. 4 of this year, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to require media literacy be taught in K-12. The law passed with bipartisan support.

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With the growing emphasis on news media literacy, it shows the fragile state of trust in the sources and dissemination of accurate information in our public discourse, not only in terms of politics and public policy, but in many aspects of our lives — whether we are grappling with how to best deal with a pandemic, or addressing educational, economic, social and other issues.

How do we separate fact from fiction and truth from lies in trying to find meaning solutions and paths forward? How will we teach and help ourselves and future generations know the difference?

Deliberate and concerted efforts from our leaders, institutions, and from all of us will be required.

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Janice Ellis
Janice Ellis

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Her commentary has appeared in The Kansas City Star, community newspapers, on radio and now online. She is the author of two award-winning books: From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search of the American Dream (2018) and Shaping Public Opinion: How Real Advocacy Journalism™ Should be Practiced (2021). Ellis holds a Ph.D. in communication arts, and two Master of Arts degrees, one in communications arts and a second in political science, all from the University of Wisconsin.

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