Misinformation in media isn’t a new problem—but it used to be much more contained. With the rise of the internet and social media platforms, misinformation has gained even more power. In the past couple of years, misinformation ran rampant, wreaking havoc on a population largely unprepared for it, during the confusing and combative 2020 election and the pandemic.
Well, Illinois is taking action to control the beast that is misinformation by becoming the first state to require high schools to teach news literacy to students.
There is a widespread misconception that young people, because they’ve grown up with digital devices and the internet, are adept at being able to distinguish real news from not, but in an interview with NPR, Joel Breakstone, the man heading the Stanford History Education Group, explains that this is far from the truth.
He relates an experiment that researchers conducted involving an anonymous Facebook video that circulated before the 2016 presidential election and claimed to show people ballot-stuffing during that year’s primaries. The researchers showed the video to more than 3,000 American high school students and asked them if they thought this was strong evidence of voter fraud in the US.
“Out of those more than 3,000 students, three figured out that, actually, the video came from Russia,” says Breakstone.
As part of the new news literacy curriculum, students will analyze news content across all platforms. Over the last year, Breakstone’s groups worked with ninth graders attending a suburban Chicago high school and were able to integrate news literacy into other subjects such as geography and biology. Breakstone’s team found that students were more likely to successfully distinguish misinformation when practicing lateral reading. Lateral reading can be as simple as opening a new tab and leaving the post to find more about the source information.
According to Breakstone, the students got better at identifying questionable sources, but that skill required time and practice. Students often didn’t understand why, for instance, a company writing about climate change receiving funding from the fossil fuel industry would be likely to skew the story, and many assume that if an influence on social media has many followers, it means they’re trustworthy.
However, for this curriculum to be most effective, teachers also must be media savvy. This is where Peter Adams comes in, the head of the News Literacy Project, where he trains teachers, provides lesson plans and sometimes brings them into newsrooms to show the reporting process. It’s also crucial that teachers create an environment where students feel comfortable talking about political issues.
The new Illinois curriculum will go into effect by the 2022-2023 school year, with other states to follow as 14 more of them are already thinking about incorporating media literacy standards as well.