It’s been heartening to see a rise in literacy around the world in the past 50 years. But we’re facing a new challenge, as an excess of convincing content floods our screens: a startling drop in media literacy.
The media we consume plays a powerful role in shaping our beliefs, attitudes and perceptions. Knowing what content is truthful, accurate and unbiased is essential for a functioning society. Because we gather our news from such a diverse collection of sources — social media, online reporting, television, print and digital publications, and more — it’s important for all of us to be empowered to decode media messages and assess their intentions and impact.
Librarians are on the frontlines of this fight. It’s up to them not just to share access to a range of media and resources, but to help educate patrons to recognize false or harmful information.
Why media literacy is important in 2021
This isn’t just about avoiding looking foolish. Media literacy is a foundational skill for democracy. It equips all citizens with the ability to navigate and leverage media in their everyday lives.
A concerning study from Pew Research Center found that only 17 percent of U.S. adults have the confidence to learn new information effectively online. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism discovered that between 2015 and 2020, the number of people who trust in the news decreased in countries all over the world.
Much of the credibility crisis that the media is facing right now comes from the fact that anyone, anywhere, with any motive can produce professional-grade content, and share it with a mass audience, at the click of a mouse. Not only is it incredibly easy to design and publish convincing, news-style websites, but modern video and photo editing technology can now manipulate images to a disturbingly realistic degree. Deepfake technology takes these deceptive techniques even further, convincingly replicating real faces, voices and bodies in digital video. When a video of President Obama using foul language or an alarming story about the violation of civil rights are presented alongside reported and fact-checked stories from legacy news sources in your Facebook feed, is it any wonder so many people are struggling to separate fact from fiction?
The danger of uncritical media consumption
Whether it’s a biased source providing unbalanced reporting or a malicious actor intentionally spreading propaganda or misinformation, there is real danger that comes from believing everything you read or see. Even when media gatekeepers try to keep out the bad information — Facebook has removed 18 million posts containing COVID misinformation since the start of the pandemic — new articles, videos and false images appear to take their place.
Many experts point to a rise in misinformation online as the catalyst for the troubling conspiracy theories, hoaxes and political partisanship that is causing so much strife in the world today. Which is why it’s more important than ever that librarians step up to help communities build the media literacy skills they need to navigate modern life.
Connecting readers with trusted journalism
Media literacy is essential for supporting strong institutions, enabling societies to hold those in power accountable, and helping to reduce inequalities. One key tool to help people improve their media literacy is providing equitable access to accurate, ethically reported journalistic sources. This supports sustainable development and creates responsible digital citizens.
Libraries can offer access to trusted journalism with tools like Pressreader, which provide free, digital editions of newspapers and magazines — both current and back issues. Engaging with a wide breadth of sources from across the political spectrum allows readers the opportunity to do “lateral reading” and corroborate claims that may seem dubious with alternative sources. After all, the most harmful and isolating ideologies are often born from echo chambers. Opening patrons’ eyes to the wide range of thoughts, ideas and perspectives available in journalism that are out there can make a world of difference.
The power of simple skepticism
Sharing a checklist of simple rules has been proven to help readers evaluate credibility of sources too. One MIT study saw an improvement in discernment between real and fake headlines by 26 percent when readers were given blunt reminders about critical thinking — for instance, prompts like “if shocking claims in headlines sound unbelievable, they probably are.”
Common Sense Media recommends the following questions for kids to ask about the media they’re consuming, but these quandaries are just as helpful for adult content: Who created this? Why did they make it? What techniques are being used to make this message credible or believable?
There is so much power in not just consuming, but questioning. Librarians can easily encourage this tactic in both physical and virtual spaces with simple signage posing helpful critical thinking questions, or even playful “warning labels” that encourage readers to consume media with caution.
Honing media literacy skills together
To encourage the practice of critical thinking even further, librarians may want to consider incorporating media literacy workshops into their programming. Activities and lesson plans that are used in school curriculums can offer a great jumping off point or inspiration for groups of all ages. Exploring concepts of truth and accuracy in media together in a group (whether in-person or in an online program) can also add a layer of social validation to the media literacy practices they are teaching.
Librarians have an important role to play in sustaining both education and democracy, and there’s no better time to start pursuing this mission than now. The goal of improving global media literacy may seem like a heavy burden to place on librarians, but with the right training, education and resources, they can have a real impact on how their communities are consuming media and functioning as a society.
Are you ready to commit to spreading trustworthy information and promoting media literacy in your own community and libraries? Take PressReader’s media literacy pledge.
Learn more about how PressReader can support librarians in the fight for media literacy.