Studies show lack of media literacy in students has negative impact

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Looking at communications assistant professor Kevin John’s office, it’s clear he’s an avid consumer of media. There’s Star Wars paraphernalia all over his office, among other things. But John is not your average media consumer. He’s made it a goal to be a critical thinker when it comes to any sort of media and he’s trying to teach his students to do the same.

Recent studies have shown that students have trouble critically thinking about media and judging its credibility, especially online.

study published last year by the Stanford Graduate School of Education testing middle school, high school, and college students’ media literacy suggested most young people don’t have a good understanding of what constitutes “fake news” vs. real news.

More than 7,800 students in all the academic levels tested were presented with information in social media, news articles, and comments. The study discovered the following:

  • 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between sponsored articles and real news stories.
  • Most of the high school students didn’t bother to verify where photos online came from and blindly accepted the photos’ stated contexts.
  • Many high school students couldn’t tell the difference between a real news article and a real-looking fake news article on social media. In fact, in one particular example, more than 30 percent of high school students tested thought a post claiming to be from Fox News was more reliable than one actually from Fox News.
  • Out of the Stanford college students that were tested, more than 80 percent couldn’t identify biased content from independent news sources supported by groups like lobbying firms as being less reliable than a mainstream news source.

John, who teaches a class called Media Effects, tries to instill in his students a sense of critical thinking when they look at any sort of media.

“When it comes to my class, I want them to know right off the bat that it’s okay to question any type of communication,” John said.

John gave an example of a hypothetical situation he uses in his class to illustrate media bias. In the example, two news stations both cover a snowstorm, but one focuses on the hazardous road conditions, and the other focuses on kids playing in the snow.

“With a news story, they tell you what they feel are the important details, but what’s important will depend on perhaps the opinions of the news director that day or the prominence of the people involved,” John said. “All of these things that come together to determine newsworthiness. There’s room for opinion and there’s room for bias because whenever we’re dealing with human beings, we’re dealing with bias.”

John also uses this example to make a point that it’s important to be media literate.

“A media literate person would recognize that (each story) is one area at one point in time, but that there’s more going on,” John said. “And so media literacy requires some level of activity on the part of the viewer.”

Sara Van Tuyl, a history teaching major, interns at Timpview High School teaching U.S. History to juniors. As part of her teaching, Van Tuyl makes a point to educate her students on how to evaluate historical sources and news sources.

“When we do those activities we make sure that when they look at modern sources, they are forced to corroborate them,” Van Tuyl said.

After the Stanford study was published, the Stanford History Education Group published a website with tools teachers can use to teach young students about media literacy and civic reasoning. Van Tuyl uses some of these tools when teaching her high school students.

“I think a lot of the Stanford University tools that they give us are very useful because some of the things they offer are specifically designed for historical thinking, and historical thinking skills are necessary to critical thinking of modern news and events as well,” Van Tuyl said.

Through teaching how to evaluate historical and modern news sources, Van Tuyl hopes she can help the students learn how to make informed decisions.

“My goal is that by the time I leave this class my students are able to look at news sources and whether or not they agree with them they’re able to recognize how to verify the source,” Van Tuyl said.”These kinds of things are important for them to learn as they go forward because in a couple of years they’ll be able to vote.”

According to a Nieman Reports article from Spring 2017 entitled “Can News Literacy Be Taught?”, another group in Bethesda, Maryland called the News Literacy Project is working to improve media literacy. The group, led by former Los Angeles Times reporter Alan Miller, also creates tools for educators to teach media literacy to students. Additionally, they are working on producing public service announcements on fake news and news literacy.

Kris Boyle, assistant professor of news media at BYU, thinks there have been good and bad impacts of social media on accessing and evaluating news. On one hand, social media has made news more accessible to people, but on the other hand, the increased volume of news in social media has made it a little more difficult to evaluate.

“There are individuals who take at face value what they see in social media as real news,” Boyle said.

As a college professor, Boyle feels it’s his role to educate his students on how to be good journalists who use reliable sources in their stories. By doing this, they can help other Americans become more media literate and gain their trust.

“That’s kind of why I really immerse myself in what I do at BYU,” Boyle said. “Because the students here at BYU get the type of training that makes them good, solid journalists and truth-seekers and disseminators that can provide the truth and accuracy in terms of what they share.”

Tips for being more literate. (Laura Spilsbury)