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