Teach­ing kids news lit­er­acy could be a mat­ter of life and death

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY SARAH BRANDT

It’s Au­gust 2021. The Fed­eral Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion has just ap­proved a COVID-19 vac­cine backed by the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, and 330 mil­lion doses have be­come avail­able in hos­pi­tals and phar­ma­cies across the coun­try.

But of those doses, 165 mil­lion will never leave their ster­il­ized pack­ag­ing, be­cause so many Amer­i­cans refuse to take a COVID-19 vac­cine.

It’s an alarm­ing sce­nario, but one that very well could ma­te­ri­al­ize, ac­cord­ing to re­cent polling. Re­searchers at the As­so­ci­ated Press and the Univer­sity of Chicago found that only 50% of Amer­i­cans say they would take a coro­n­avirus vac­cine if it be­comes avail­able. The main rea­son? Mis­in­for­ma­tion about the safety of vac­cines, cou­pled with the pub­lic’s lack of me­dia lit­er­acy skills.

From the (false) claim that Bill Gates will use a COVID-19 vac­cine to im­plant peo­ple with sur­veil­lance mi­crochips to the per­sis­tent mis­con­cep­tion that vac­cines are dan­ger­ous, we have seen from the start of the pan­demic how con­spir­acy the­o­rists and oth­ers have seized on the pub­lic’s fear to spread dan­ger­ous lies and fo­ment con­fu­sion.

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion has even coined a term to de­scribe the spread of mis­in­for­ma­tion. “We’re not just fight­ing an epi­demic; we’re fight­ing an in­fo­demic,” said WHO Di­rec­tor-Gen­eral Te­dros Ad­hanom Ghe­breye­sus in Fe­bru­ary. “Fake news spreads faster and more eas­ily than this virus and is just as dan­ger­ous.”

This phe­nom­e­non, un­for­tu­nately, is not new. At NewsGuard, where I work, trained jour­nal­ists rate the re­li­a­bil­ity of thou­sands of news and in­for­ma­tion web­sites to pro­vide in­ter­net users with con­text for the news they read on­line. We’ve seen time and again how ped­dlers of mis­in­for­ma­tion view ma­jor events such as the coro­n­avirus as an op­por­tu­nity to spread lies, sow divi­sion, and even make money by sell­ing phony cures.

Long-stand­ing health mis­in­for­ma­tion sites, many with be­nign-sound­ing names like Nat­u­ralHealth3­65.com and HealthIm­pactNews.com, seized on the pan­demic to pub­lish ar­ti­cles tout­ing base­less “reme­dies” for the dis­ease, such as air fresh­en­ers and co­conut oil (while con­ve­niently link­ing to pages to buy those same prod­ucts). Even­tu­ally, when this virus is be­hind us, they’ll move on to the next big thing.

So, how do we help peo­ple tell good in­for­ma­tion from bad? Fact checks and Face­book bans on ac­counts spread­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion can get us only so far. The best in­ter­ven­tion — the only op­tion that can have a real, last­ing im­pact — is education.

There is an ur­gent need to teach young peo­ple how to be more dis­cern­ing con­sumers of in­for­ma­tion. Re­search con­ducted at Stan­ford shows that stu­dents from mid­dle school to col­lege strug­gle to as­sess the cred­i­bil­ity of the in­for­ma­tion they en­counter on­line. Whether you call it me­dia lit­er­acy, news lit­er­acy, in­for­ma­tion lit­er­acy or some­thing else, it all boils down to the same con­cept: We need to teach stu­dents to be savvier on­line. We need to teach them when and how to be skep­ti­cal, but also, when to be­lieve the ex­perts.

Mis­in­for­ma­tion spans ev­ery topic — from sci­ence to health to pol­i­tics and be­yond. As a re­sult, the re­spon­si­bil­ity for teach­ing me­dia lit­er­acy should not only lie with the rare jour­nal­ism teacher or the school li­brar­ian; it must be em­braced by ed­u­ca­tors in ev­ery dis­ci­pline.

Bi­ol­ogy teach­ers, for ex­am­ple, should be con­cerned about the false claim that the COVID-19 virus con­tains “HIV-like in­ser­tions,” sug­gest­ing it was en­gi­neered in a lab. Civics teach­ers should be alarmed by false claims swirling that mail-in bal­lots rou­tinely re­sult in voter fraud — par­tic­u­larly given the im­mi­nence of a ma­jor elec­tion. Phys­i­cal education and health teach­ers can play a part too, by de­ter­ring stu­dents from be­liev­ing in dan­ger­ous “miracle” cures such as col­loidal sil­ver and mis­guided di­etary reg­i­mens such as the al­ka­line diet. In­for­ma­tion lit­er­acy is rel­e­vant to ev­ery dis­ci­pline.

Be­fore we can ex­pect more from ed­u­ca­tors, who of­ten strug­gle to cover all of their cur­ric­u­lar re­quire­ments (even with­out the added stres­sor of try­ing to teach dur­ing a pan­demic), me­dia lit­er­acy education needs to be val­ued and pri­or­i­tized by the U.S. education sys­tem.

Leg­is­la­tors are start­ing to act on this front, but progress has been limited. At the na­tional level, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Demo­crat from Min­nesota, in­tro­duced a bill in July of last year that would pro­vide a mod­est $20 mil­lion in grant fund­ing for states and lo­cal school districts to develop and in­cor­po­rate me­dia lit­er­acy into cur­ric­ula. And here in Illi­nois, Demo­cratic state Rep. El­iz­a­beth Her­nan­dez in­tro­duced a sim­i­lar bill in Jan­uary of 2019, which would pro­mote me­dia lit­er­acy education in the state.

While these are steps in the right di­rec­tion, both bills are cur­rently stalled.

As many school districts de­cide to re­main par­tially or en­tirely on­line this fall, stu­dents will spend more time brows­ing the web — and more time stum­bling upon false claims on TikTok, In­sta­gram, and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms. The need to teach young peo­ple how to iden­tify and as­sess on­line myths, ru­mors and hoaxes has never been more im­por­tant. In a pan­demic, dis­cern­ing re­li­able in­for­ma­tion from mis­in­for­ma­tion can have life-or-death con­se­quences. Luck­ily, ed­u­ca­tors can help stu­dents learn to tell the dif­fer­ence. Sarah Brandt is the Chicago-based vice pres­i­dent of News Lit­er­acy Pro­grams at NewsGuard, a non­par­ti­san or­ga­ni­za­tion that re­views the re­li­a­bil­ity of news sites to com­bat mis­in­for­ma­tion and help teach me­dia lit­er­acy. Visit news­guardtech.com/news-lit­er­acy/ to learn more about how you can use NewsGuard free at your li­brary or school.

KIRSTY WIGGLESWOR­TH/AP PHOTO

Re­searcher around the world, such as this tech­ni­cian at the Im­pe­rial Col­lege in Lon­don, are work­ing on a vac­cine against COVID-19. But sci­en­tists fear that peo­ple fed false in­for­ma­tion on­line will refuse to take the vac­cine.

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