News literacy is back in the headlines as countries around the world grapple with how to arm their citizens with the skills and knowledge to sort fact from fiction and fake news from trustworthy content.
While some advocate for the direct policing of content, another tactic is to provide education to media consumers that can help them to make more informed choices as to whether the claims they see in the “news” are reliable or not.
In Australia, the ACCC highlighted the importance of increasing news literacy in its Digital Platforms Inquiry Preliminary Report:
Equipping individuals to discern when news and information is mal-information or dis-information will reduce their vulnerability to some of the harms that can result from information disorder. These harms may include forming views or making decisions on inaccurate or deliberately misleading information, including susceptibility to scams.
The ACCC’s suggestion to improve access to media literacy programs was met with approval from a number of companies and organisations that made submissions to the Inquiry, including The Australian Press Council, the ABC, MEAA, ACMA, NewsMediaWorks and SBS.
Google and Facebook both claimed that they were already working on local initiatives to increase news literacy and the supply of public-interest journalism.
The state of media literacy in Australia remains fragmented
2018 was a big year for media literacy in Australia.
In February 2018 the Australian Government Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism published its report, which included Recommendation 3:
The committee recommends that the Commonwealth work with the states and territories through the Council of Australian Governments to determine how areas of the Australian Curriculum may be improved regarding digital media awareness and media literacy.
As part of the paper’s discussion, Saffron Howden, Editor of Crinkling News told the committee that there was a need to inculcate good critical thinking skills regarding media from a young age through the national Australian Curriculum. She argued, “In order to address the creeping influence of so-called fake news, alternative facts, clickbait and a selection by social media platforms of the information to which we are all exposed, we need to start educating children at a young age.
“In short, we need to develop media literacy in Australia.”
And The University of Tasmania surveyed 97 teachers from the State, Catholic and Independents sectors, identifying “an urgent need for greater digital media awareness and media literacy support for Australian teachers and students.”
Academics from UTS wrote in their submission to the ACCC, “We would very much urge any campaign to be informed by the professions of child psychology and information design as well as educationalists, policy makers and creatives.”
News media publishers have also become involved. Kidsnews.com.au is a “ready-to go literacy resource for teachers” that republishes content from NewsCorp’s publications in a student-friendly format and is aimed at complementing classroom learning. Content can be sorted by topic or reading level and is also accessible to students that rely on audio text readers.
Journalists from mastheads such as The Sydney Morning Herald have been involved in national projects such as the ABC’s Media Literacy Week (MLW), helping students to understand the work that goes into producing high-quality journalism. To coincide with MLW, The Conversation published a range of research around news literacy in the country.
All of these initiatives help to engage students in a conversation about what makes news media trustworthy and how to evaluate different sources of information.
How do other countries promote better news literacy?
Poynter has been keeping a list of global efforts to combat mis- and disinformation, including government arrests of people that intentionally spread false claims. The list also highlights media literacy programs in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Nigeria and Singapore.
March 2019 saw the EU hold its inaugural European Media Literacy Week to educate and inform those around the continent about the importance of critical evaluation of information found in the digital space. In addition, the Media Literacy Awards were announced, highlighting “inspiring and/or impactful projects in the field of media literacy”. The finalists included:
Ireland has its own initiative, the Be Media Smart campaign developed by Media Literacy Ireland. The central aim of the campaign is to “help people tell the difference between reliable and accurate information and or deliberately false or misleading information.” The campaign website hosts a list of useful resources and a list of initiatives regarding media literacy around Europe.
The United States is home to a plethora of news literacy initiatives, a good sign considering the impact of mis- and disinformation of the country’s population.
The News Literacy Project is a nonpartisan national education nonprofit that currently provides resources such as an online virtual classroom called “Checkology” that is reaching teachers is all 50 states.
In Illinois, where the state recently mandated a new graduation requirement in civic education, elements of news literacy are being integrated into the curriculum
Media Literacy Now, which advocates for media literacy education, reports that 10 US state legislatures are now considering bills that would mandate some form of media education, with Washington State passing the most substantive so far, although it does not mandate new curriculum.
MediaWise by Poynter developed a digital news literacy initiative to help students in middle and high school across the United States “be smarter consumers of news and information online.”
And at the university level, there are programs like the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, implemented to teach news literacy to students from all different academic disciplines.
In the United Kingdom, the 2019 Cairncross Review recommended that the government develop a cohesive media literacy strategy. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s Fake News Inquiry also considered this issue and its interim report made several recommendations to improve digital literacy.
A national strategy would complement a range of existing programs from non-profit organisations such as The Guardian Foundation. These initiatives have launched school programs, developed advice, and set up partnerships with industry to help minors gain critical thinking skills.
Big tech is getting involved
Companies like Google and Facebook know that they have been part of the problem of spreading false information.
In 2017 Google launched a news literacy program for kids and co-created a curriculum that teachers could implement in their classrooms. In the same year, Facebook announced that a major aim of the Facebook Journalism Project would be “to find ways to promote news literacy”.
In 2018, Digiday ran the story, “One year in, Facebook Journalism Project gets mixed reviews from publishers”. The positive outcomes of the project included increased communication between platform and publishers, and access to online tools that could assist news media organisations in their production and distribution of content.
There were also criticisms, with sceptics of the project saying the move was a PR move without tangible benefits for publishers.
Microsoft has received acclaim for its collaboration with NewsGuard, a browser extension that helps users to identify the reliability and publishing standards of news media websites. The service works by displaying a “nutrition label” alongside websites that help the user to identify whether the publisher is transparent about funding and ownership, and whether the site handles corrections, false information and opinion content responsibly.
While the nutrition label alone will not prevent the spread of fake news, the initiative has received some positive feedback from users, although the ratings have inevitably drawn criticism from some outlets that believe the company is biased against right-wing and conservative views.
While there is unlikely to be a silver bullet for misinformation, local, national and international initiatives to inform and educate consumers of news media and online information can have positive outcomes for communities.
NewsMediaWorks highlighted support for news literacy initiatives in a submission to the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry:
We would support a proposal that the government fund programs to increase consumer literacy, especially among Australia’s students at all levels of education. We hope to see initiatives that increase the public’s awareness of how quality news is produced and funded, how to evaluate sources for trustworthiness, and the value to society of a free press.
NewsMediaWorks hopes to see the Australian Government introduce new ways to help provide news literacy in our schools and universities, helping the public to understand the social and political impacts of misleading information.