The need for media literacy isn’t new — but our current cultural climate and digital ecosystem certainly give today’s issues a unique spin. Even as teachers, librarians and institutions are working so diligently to fight for critical media literacy in our communities, we need to start thinking about tomorrow’s media literacy issues. What will the future hold? And how can we prepare our community members to be engaged, thoughtful, analytical media consumers today and in the years to come and beyond?
Media literacy concerns have always existed, but these days they are intensified by the volume of misinformation shared via social media (and resulting increase of internet conspiracy theories). There’s also the issue of media bias, and education that hasn’t kept up with evolving technology — overly simplified media literacy training too often fails to extend to complex real-world scenarios.
The bottom line? To prepare young people for a future of media literacy and constant critical thinking, we need to help them understand the systems in place behind mass media. As individuals are increasingly encouraged to “do their own research” — often with little instruction as to how to do accurate and trustworthy source analysis — the library’s role in information and digital literacy education must evolve. In the fight for media literacy, the bulk of focus on teaching critical reading and analysis falls to teachers, but library professionals and facilities can (and will) play a big role in this effort.
Here’s what the future of library-led media literacy support might look like.
Teaching and encouraging effective research methods
While schools are ground zero for media literacy education, libraries play an important supporting role in reinforcing effective research methods. Librarians themselves, as experts in the research field, can share tricks of the trade one-on-one with patrons during everyday interactions. There are also opportunities for more passive educational moments — for instance, signage reinforcing good digital-citizenship habits near computer stations, or take-home literature and checklists at the checkout.
Media-literacy workshops and seminars are of course an option too. Whether a one-evening course on identifying bias in online information or a multi-day intensive covering critical-thinking skills and lateral reading, libraries have the opportunity to reach students of all ages with free or low-cost informational sessions.
Working alongside educators
Librarians needn’t solve the media literacy crisis on their own, of course. In fact, the strongest approach to building informed and engaged communities of media consumers is to collaborate with the teachers who are already incorporating media literacy lessons into their classrooms. With information about blind spots in the curriculum, missed opportunities or specific resource needs, librarians can supplement the important work teachers are already doing to cultivate young people's ability to take a critical look at the media they consume.
Whether public librarians reach out to elementary school teachers or high school librarians directly, attend teaching conferences or find educator communities online, there are a variety of opportunities to connect and collaborate with the teaching community.
Identifying new ways to connect with patrons
Chances are that the future of library access will continue to be a blend of in-person and online experiences. Librarians should be prepared to ensure the foundations of library science are always present, even when people aren’t physically on-site.
That means providing easy access to reliable, authentic sources of information digitally as well as in the stacks. PressReader is one great way to connect patrons with trusted news sources from around the world, even if they’re reading or researching outside the library walls.
Meeting the challenges of the digital age
Librarians work hard to source books and content that serve their communities’ needs. But with a rise in self-publishing, artificial intelligence and increasingly sophisticated digital production tools, there are more questionable media floating around out there than ever before. There has never been a better time to be extra-diligent about ensuring the credibility of the content available to library patrons.
Librarians will continue to have a responsibility to provide the most credible resources possible. This may require additional professional development for library staff or intensified scrutiny when sourcing new materials for the collection. The goal? To make sure the most accessible information is also the most accurate.
Artificial intelligence and information literacy
You can't believe everything you read, and that is especially true of content generated through the use of artificial-intelligence technology.
Sometimes this is because the content is being prompted or disseminated by bad actors who are intent on spreading misleading information (or so-called "fake news") that supports their political leanings. Much of the time, however, the blame lies within the AI model itself.
As Melissa Heikkilä put it in an MIT Technology Review article, large language models like GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 (which form the basis of OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot) are incapable of discerning fact from fiction:
The magic — and danger — of these large language models lies in the illusion of correctness. The sentences they produce look right — they use the right kinds of words in the correct order. But the AI doesn’t know what any of it means. These models work by predicting the most likely next word in a sentence. They haven’t a clue whether something is correct or false, and they confidently present information as true even when it is not.
Librarians have an important role to play
At PressReader, we are strong believers in the notion that librarians have an important role to play in fighting for media literacy and combating disinformation.
Why is media literacy important? Wherever we get our info — be it the local paper, TV, the internet or through social media platforms — the news we consume can shape our beliefs, attitudes and perceptions. For a democratic society to function, a population that can discern which sources of information are truthful, accurate and unbiased is essential.
As long-time journalist Alan Miller, founder of the News Literacy Project, once astutely noted:
We’ve lost any sense of a common narrative, of a shared reality. We not only can’t agree on what the facts are, we can’t even agree on what a fact is.
The good news is that libraries are ideally positioned to support media literacy in an age of misinformation by equipping patrons with fact-checking skills and media know-how. The biggest challenge in 2024 is being able to tell the difference between AI-generated content and that created by a human being.
Libraries can provide trusted media content
Critical thinking and media literacy skills are essential in a functioning, democratic society, advocates say. That’s because these skills support strong institutions, enable societies to hold those in power accountable and help to reduce inequalities.
It's important for readers to engage with ideas and info from across the political spectrum, and it's equally crucial for them to be able to find the truth in a world rife with misinformation.
In addition to helping patrons differentiate between human writing and AI-generated communications, librarians can also provide free access to trusted journalism with platforms like PressReader, which can open their eyes to the wide range of thoughts, ideas and perspectives to be found in genuine journalistic content.
Tapping into expertise
Quality journalism comes from quality journalists. The more we recognize the sources and writers of stories, and celebrate those who are doing an ethical and thorough job with their reporting, the more we build trust with the news media.
In the years to come, underlining the distinction between trusted voices and bad actors will continue to be vital. Librarians can use their programming to help in this effort. Inviting authors and notable journalists to speak about their work and process — whether in-person or virtually — can offer an eye-opening experience to patrons and add a celebrity flair to topics like news literacy and bias.
Avoid judgement that will push that patron away
It can be tempting to scoff at unverified sources, fake news or conspiracy theories, but aggressive skepticism may do more harm than good when interacting with a believer. To welcome everyone into the world of media literacy can take a gentle touch: compassion and empathy are key.
When someone has fallen into a propaganda trap, taken a sensationalistic article at its word or failed to see the agenda of an author, it certainly doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent. These pieces are often designed to trick or persuade. As distrust of mainstream media grows and the line between opinion and fact continues to blur, the concept of truth has somehow become a partisan issue. Coaxing someone into embracing critical media literacy habits requires avoiding judgement that will push the patron away.
Instead, use reference desk interactions as an opportunity to ask direct, objective questions such as “Where do you get your news?” and “Why do you feel like this is a more reliable source than others?”
Building a foundation of critical media literacy that will see us through the ever-changing world of media and digital content is essential to creating a stable, engaged democracy and fostering better communities for us all.