A Ray of Hope for Media Literacy

Although the tidal wave of misinformation continues unabated, the New Year already has seen one ray of hope. In early January, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed the first-in-the-nation law that requires public schools to teach media literacy at all grade levels – K-12.

Murphy noted in his signing statement: “Our democracy remains under sustained attack through the proliferation of misinformation that is eroding the role of truth in our political and civic discourse. It is our responsibility to ensure our nation’s future leaders are equipped with the tools necessary to identify fact from fiction.”

Fake news written on a chalk board

The state Board of Education is charged in the law with developing media-literacy standards that must include researching, using critical thinking skills, and learning the difference between facts and opinions and primary and secondary sources. Public hearings will be held as part of this standards development process.

Here are a few suggested areas that can translate the law’s virtues into tangible outcomes.

First, it’s important that media literacy become integrated across all subject areas, rather than just taught as a unit of a particular subject area, such as social studies. Misinformation respects no disciplinary boundaries: It can proliferate in news about current events, science, technology, or any other field where fast-moving developments can foster half-baked ideas, rumors, conspiracy theories, or outright lies.

Teaching media literacy also should veer away from theoretical lectures in favor of experiential learning designed for suitability at various age levels. Students should gain an increasingly sophisticated sense of media information discernment as they move through elementary, middle, and high school, which is best accomplished by having them explore real-life problems individually and collectively in a classroom setting. The goal should be to have them internalize two threshold questions every time they are faced with new information: “How do I know that?” and “What does it mean?”

Better training for teachers to undertake hands-on media-literacy training also should be part of making any new standards meaningful. This vital aspect will need to be supported by local school boards allocating sufficient financial resources and providing time off for teachers to be taught media literacy themselves.

It’s especially important for more senior faculty members to accelerate their understanding about the complexities of social media in order to teach current and future generations of digital natives. Growing up with legacy media such as newspapers and broadcast television won’t be very relevant since, for the most part, media literacy really means social media literacy to anyone enrolled in public school today.

And it will be important for New Jersey to build upon the successes other countries have had in rolling out effective media-literacy education on a massive scale. The current gold standard is Finland, which begins its instruction even earlier – in preschool. The Finnish approach provides teachers with wide latitude in how they incorporate media literacy in their lesson plans, which means that teachers can tailor their instruction to create real student engagement rather than merely drill them on passing standards-developed exams.

The results? Finland now ranks first among European countries for resilience to misinformation, according to an Open Society Institute survey. Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, and Sweden are other countries of note that can be looked at as New Jersey’s media-literacy standards are developed.

Finally, although starting early has real upsides, the massive population of those long gone from public schools should not be left out entirely. Here, Finland again can serve as a model, since it has begun to take advantage of the best media-literacy practices developed by teachers to adapt for adults through public libraries. This community outreach can and should be done throughout the Garden State as well, to demonstrate that what works in Helsinki also can work in Hackensack, Hightstown, or Ho-Ho-Kus.

With effective implementation, the New Jersey law can be more than just a step in the right direction, helping to create better informed citizens over time. Students (and ideally their parents and grandparents, too) should be equipped with lifelong tools to help them deal with the information tsunami that surely will continue throughout 2023 and beyond.

Stuart N. Brotman, a New Jersey native, is an endowed professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a Distinguished Fellow at The Media Institute and serves on its First Amendment Advisory Council. He is the author of The First Amendment Lives On. This article appeared in NJ Spotlight News.