It’s been a year since George Floyd was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police. In the hours and days following his death, social media was flooded with video and photos of his final moments while protests calling for an end to police violence against people of color began to sweep the country. Just as quickly, rumors, misinformation and conspiracy theories began to spread, causing confusion and fueling hate and anger.
Unfortunately, a surge of misinformation in the aftermath of a major news event is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Falsehoods, hoaxes and lies regularly pollute our newsfeeds and drown out fact-based news and information.
No one has innate technology skills
Adults struggle to navigate this overload of information, yet we assume young people, incorrectly called “digital natives,” somehow know how to do so from birth. The fact is, no one is born with innate technology skills; they must be taught and reinforced through practice. We are failing young people by not preparing them for the problematic information ecosystem they are growing up with and inheriting.
This is why young people have a right to news literacy.
At a time when misinformation threatens both our civic life and our public health, we endanger the futures of the next generation and the viability of our democracy overall if we don’t provide young people with the knowledge and skills to find fair, vetted information and reliable sources. By not teaching them how to sift through all the information available to determine what’s accurate and what is not we have done them a serious disservice. We’ve made them vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation, setting them back on the path to becoming a well-informed and engaged adult.
We can prevent this. We must integrate news literacy education across subject areas and grade levels, mandating it as a high school graduation requirement. We must actively teach students to determine the credibility of information and its source, to differentiate types of information and misinformation, and to use the standards of authoritative, fact-based journalism to decide what to trust, share and act on.
An essential skill
Knowing the difference between fact and opinion-based statements and false or manipulated content empowers young people beyond the classroom. It is an essential skill for evaluating issues that have real-life consequences, such as the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and the security of our elections.
We are at a critical junction for civil discourse in America. It is impossible to have a rational, measured discussion of social and political issues if one portion of the population bases its beliefs on emotion-based reasoning and conspiratorial thinking. We must deepen young people’s understanding of the advantages and drawbacks of social platforms and educate them to understand that misinformation comes in many forms and can be communicated in different ways, depending on the platform. News literacy emphasizes the skills and knowledge to check that information, evaluate sources and recognize quality, standards-based news regardless of which platform is being used.
And cultivating a healthy, informed civic dialogue isn’t an end in itself — it’s a means of solving the greater problems that young people are inheriting. For example, making progress on issues like climate change, racial injustice, sexual violence and economic inequality is impossible without first being able to recognize credible information and establish a shared set of facts.
The tools exist to empower educators
Failing to give today’s young people access to news literacy education is not passive — it’s actively disempowering and it puts students at a significant civic disadvantage. If we want to ensure that young people are prepared to function in and carry on our democracy, we must help them exercise their right to news literacy education. The need is urgent, and the tools, lessons and programs exist to empower educators to develop in their students the habits of mind that will last a lifetime. In a rapidly changing news cycle, we have little time to waste.
Anything less would be a fundamental failure of our responsibility — to them and to ourselves.
John Silva is the senior director of education and training for the News Literacy Project and a National Board Certified teacher. He’ll be leading a free, news literacy day of professional learning for all educators in Minnesota at a NewsLitCamp® in partnership with the Star Tribune, Minneapolis Public Radio and Sourcewell Technology on June 15.
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