The Importance of Media Literacy in the Age of “Fake News”
By Donna Vandiver, TVG President & CEO and Laura Vandiver, TVG VP of Research & Strategic Insight
Long before there was “fake news”, there was disinformation, propaganda and censorship. Many Americans are able to evaluate and decide if something they are reading is real or not. But many also have difficulty discerning “fake” news from actual, factual information. This is especially so when false stories can be shared in an instant across the globe via social media channels. Arizona Senator John McCain recently went on NBC’s Meet the Press and talked about the importance of a free, and sometimes adversarial, press to the very fabric of our democracy.
The challenge of spotting “fake news”, however, is becoming more and more difficult as time goes on, both because the purveyors of “fake news” are adept at making it appear legitimate, and because false information is regularly pushed out by influential people who claim it’s true—even when it’s easily falsifiable by video, photo or scientific evidence.
Dr. Lynn Hasher, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, has done extensive research on memory and cognition. She says that “Repetition makes things seem more plausible.” The more you hear something repeated, essentially, the more you will come to believe it’s true. Often “fake news” stories are repeated and shared so often via social media, that a story once considered on the fringe could gain a fair amount of credibility with the general public.
So how can we move forward in an age of increasing distrust in the media? The answer may be in media literacy and critical thinking skills. The Seattle Times recently covered a story about librarians teaching fifth graders how to spot fake news, where they created an outline of things to consider when reviewing and evaluating the credibility of a piece of content:
• Is it a joke?
• What’s the evidence?
• Check the author
• Consider the source
• Read beyond the headline
• Trace the image
• Consult the experts
Whenever you come across a piece of content that you’re unsure about, these points are an excellent guideline for determining whether you’re looking at something based in factual information. We would also add that there should be multiple, verifiable sources for any factual story. Why? Because facts are traceable to documented events, scientific research and conversations. Facts have a preverbal “paper trail,” while disinformation does not.
So, to quote from the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.” Before you pass on a headline that sounds good but has nothing to do with the story; before you send around a link that starts off okay, but quickly deteriorates into an opinion piece; stop and check it out. Join the fifth graders in Seattle and use your own critical thinking skills to decide if what you are reading or hearing is real, or if it’s propaganda, censorship or disinformation.