Constance Alexander: Three little words are crushing American information literacy, obscuring fact and fiction

At the start of each semester, Leigh Wright, an associate professor of journalism at Murray State University, asks her students where their news comes from.

“From social networks” is the most frequent answer.

Those three little words line up with data from the Pew Research Center that says, “Today, about seven in ten Americans use social media to connect with each other, interact with news content, share information and entertainment.

In the United States, according to Pew, the most used online platforms are YouTube and Facebook, followed by Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Clearly, digital technology plays a prominent role in how people navigate an increasingly complex information environment. As a result, many Americans base important decisions on their own random research, rather than expert advice. This kind of personal initiative could be admirable if one were sure of people’s ability to discern the difference between trustworthy information and sources to ignore.

In 2019, a Stanford History Education Group study found that almost all high school students surveyed did not consider the validity of a source, and more than half could not properly assess the strength of the evidence presented. Adding to this puzzling finding, another Pew study found that only a minority of adults can tell the difference between fact and opinion.

In the face of such grim evidence, journalism educators have become relentless in their quest to provide rigorous training in responsible reporting and writing, based on reliable sources. At MSU, Wright and his journalism department cohorts recently dug up and redesigned a required journalism course, Media Literacy and Society. Starting this fall, JMC 168 will be listed in the academic curriculum, available to those who want to become educated news consumers, regardless of major.

According to Dr. Melony Shemberger, a Wright colleague and member of the team that revised the course, “it’s for everyone.”

“Technology has guided news media toward dynamic and positive change,” Shenberger noted, “but it has also created challenges for news consumers because access to information is immediate and personal. “

Founder of the Hoptown Chronicle, a hyper-local news source in Hopkinsville, Ky, veteran journalist and Chronicle editor, Jennifer P. Brown is a strong advocate and a constant example of accurate and thorough reporting. Additionally, co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, Brown believes the public has a personal responsibility in recognizing when opinions “disguised as news reports” are accepted as fact.

“Being a good news consumer is not a passive pursuit,” she said. “You can’t sit back and expect the truth to come find you.”

Using the analogy of a grocery store to amplify his point, Brown explained that processed foods are easy to find but aren’t necessarily part of a healthy diet. Healthy choices, on the other hand, are marginal and also require special attention to prepare a balanced meal.

“I agree there’s a lot of stuff in the media today that qualifies as junk food,” she said. “But we shouldn’t consume a lot of it.”

To get the most out of the information they consume, the public therefore has many media options that approach journalism as a process of truth-checking, rather than a source of entertainment that fuels shock or outrage.

Practical learning strategies help MSU students develop professional news writing skills. Students choose to follow a specific story in the news, for example, and are required to summarize it and tell their own story in photos or video.

“Students told me they felt like real journalists doing this exercise,” Wright remarked. “The exercise encouraged them to engage with the news and read it critically.”

Other assignments require them to listen to podcasts like NPR’s Up First or The Daily from the New York Times. For News Engagement Day, Wright students viewed the whistleblower’s testimony on Facebook and live-tweeted the audiences.

“If students are using social media to find their news, they need to learn how to use social media for reporting,” she explained.

January 24-28, National News Literacy Week, is an appropriate time to remind all of us – reporters, reporters and news consumers – that engaged and informed citizens are the foundation of democracy. . Their website offers a range of tools, such as Checkology, which help develop skills associated with evaluating and interpreting information. Additionally, tips, tools, and quizzes are available, including a Viral Rumor Rundown blog.

About Shirley L. Kreger

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