Media literacy and civic engagement: empowering citizens to participate in democratic discourse


As we have explored in a number of previous articles, media literacy is a critical skill in our digital age for a number of reasons. Developing the capacity to evaluate information and separate truth from fiction can help everyone avoid being taken in by deliberate disinformation.

For example, it can help keep kids safe online and protect older adults from falling prey to scams.

Moreover, critical media literacy skills can boost civic engagement and political participation in audiences of all ages — and from a wide variety of communities — by creating a more informed and active population.

Put in simpler terms, media literacy is good for democracy.

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Increased civic participation


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) initiated Global Media and Information Literacy Week in 2012. According to UNESCO's Media and Information Literacy Policy and Strategy Guidelines, media literacy education can result in increased citizen participation in society, which can lead to the following positive outcomes:

  • More active and democratic participation: UNESCO cites scholarly research suggesting that in addition to having positive effects on academic outcomes, information literacy and media literacy predispose citizens towards taking a more active role in society. Media and information literacy (MIL) “is a basis for freedom of expression, access to information and quality education for all,” the guidelines read. “Without MIL competencies, citizens cannot be well informed because they do not have access to information and are not empowered to process and use it.”

  • Awareness of ethical responsibilities for global citizenship: Media literacy deepens citizens’ understanding of such fundamental rights as freedom of opinion, expression and communication, and the balance between these rights and ethical responsibilities at the personal and societal level. By linking these responsibilities with the concept of global citizenship, media literacy education empowers all citizens to respect and promote the rights of others.

  • Enabling diversity, dialog and tolerance: MIL encourages greater engagement with society, which makes it a powerful tool to enable intercultural dialog, tolerance and cultural understanding across different sectors of society and among all age groups.

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Why we need media literacy

As we learn more about how critical media literacy is, and the positive impact it can have on civic and political engagement, the more it becomes clear just how much work remains to be done.

According to a report published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, 40.7% of Slovakian high-school students aged 16 to 19 could not differentiate between fake and true health articles when researchers asked them to read articles that contained messages about the nutritional value of various fruits and vegetables.  

In an earlier study designed to assess students’ skills in discerning fact from fiction, researchers at Stanford University gave 3,446 high-school-aged Americans a series of exercises to gauge how capable they were at evaluating information found on the internet.

According to the study’s executive summary, “The results — if they can be summarized in a word — are troubling.” 

The Stanford team reported that 96% of participants failed to question the credibility of an online source, and two-thirds of them could not discern the difference between news articles and advertisements.  

Safeguarding democracy against misinformation

“Reliable information is to civic health what proper sanitation and potable water are to public health,” the researchers wrote. “A polluted information supply imperils our nation’s civic health.”

The study called for “high-quality digital literacy curricula, validated by rigorous research,” to safeguard democracy against the dangerous consequences of misinformation. 

“Education moves slowly,” the executive summary reads. “Technology doesn’t. If we don’t act with urgency, our students’ ability to engage in civic life will be the casualty.” 

The role of libraries


What can librarians do to promote both media literacy and increased civic or political participation among their patrons?

Public libraries can start by offering workshops designed to help patrons develop critical thinking and news analysis skills that empower them to understand and make sense of the messages they read, hear and see.

Wherever they get their info — be it in the morning paper, via social media platforms or on a digital news app such as PressReader — participation in a media literacy program can help readers critically evaluate information and consider a story from more than one point of view.

Connecting readers with trusted sources

Media literacy promotes civic participation, empowering societies to hold those in power accountable, and helping to reduce inequalities.

One key way that libraries can help their patrons improve their media literacy skills is by giving them access to trustworthy journalistic sources.  

Libraries can, for example, offer access to trusted journalism with tools like Pressreader, a digital platform featuring current and back issues of thousands of newspapers and magazines from around the world. Engaging with a broad variety of sources from across the political spectrum allows media consumers to do “lateral reading”.

What is lateral reading?

The concept of lateral reading emerged from research conducted by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), led by its founder and executive director Sam Wineburg.

According to the News Literacy Project:

Lateral reading helps you determine an author’s credibility, intent and biases by searching for articles on the same topic by other writers (to see how they are covering it) and for other articles by the author you’re checking on. That’s what professional fact-checkers do.

By opening readers’ eyes to the wide range of perspectives available in quality journalism, librarians not only encourage further civic engagement, they also help patrons avoid the sort of online echo chambers that foment he most harmful and isolating ideologies.  

Three key questions to ask

According to one MIT study, readers' ability to discern between real and fake headlines improved by 26% when they were given blunt reminders about critical thinking, including prompts like “if shocking claims in headlines sound unbelievable, they probably are.” 

To help readers evaluate the credibility of sources, librarians can share a simple checklist of rules as part of a media-literacy program. For example, Common Sense Media recommends consuming any media with the following three questions in mind:

  • Who created this?

  • Why did they make it?

  • What techniques are being used to make this message credible or believable?  


Media literacy: a foundational skill

While cautioning that it is not a panacea (and "must be accompanied by a holistic societal approach to the challenges of disinformation"), the News Literacy Project makes the case that media literacy is a precondition of a modern democratic society:

Educating and empowering the individual to be more discerning consumers of news and information (news literacy) is foundational to strengthening our democratic society. News literacy helps people civically engage in more meaningful, authentic and empowering ways while also helping people hold news media accountable.


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