THE ISSUE: This is U.S. Media Literacy Week, which is hosted by the National Association for Media Literacy Education. As the association’s website explains, the mission of this week is to “highlight the power of media literacy education and its essential role in education all across the country.” The theme of the week celebrates one of the five components of media literacy’s definition each day: access, analyze, evaluate, create and act. The week is also celebrated by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, to which LNP | LancasterOnline belongs.
There is good news and there is bad news.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted from July 26 to Aug. 8, a little under half (48%) of U.S. adults say they get news from social media “often” or “sometimes.”
That’s the bad news, clearly, especially as we know now from Facebook whistleblowers that the social media giant has done little to stem the deluge of harmful misinformation and disinformation that floods its platform.
The good news: That 48%, as disturbing as it is, marks a 5 percentage point decline compared with 2020. Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a trend in the right direction. Because the lies and conspiracy theories that Facebook and other social media platforms convey have hurt our democracy, our health in this pandemic and our children.
Anti-vaccination forces have weaponized Facebook to spread junk science and falsehoods about the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. Partisans have shared conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 presidential election in an effort to undermine democracy. Facebook’s algorithms, especially on Instagram (which it owns), have funneled harmful information about dieting and eating disorders to vulnerable children.
Lax laws enable social media giants such as Facebook to escape responsibility for maximizing profits at the expense of the public good. As we noted earlier this month, Facebook and other social media platforms are shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms that publish third-party content from any legal liability for it. So Facebook has immunity even when it publishes harmful content — and it has the incentive to keep publishing such content because it generates profits.
Until Congress corrects this, it’s up to us to combat the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media. And this is where Media Literacy Week comes in.
School librarians and other educators are making great strides in teaching media literacy to students, and we greatly appreciate their efforts. They know that teaching children to become good citizens in 2021 means equipping them with the tools to assess what is correct and what is untrue in the information with which they are being bombarded.
That begins with assessing the information source itself.
What you’re reading now is an editorial, by definition an opinion piece — not a news story. Opinion pages have been part of newspapers forever, but it’s become more important than ever before to ensure they and other forms of commentary are clearly delineated as opinion.
The opinion staff does not report the news. But LNP | LancasterOnline news journalists report the news as objectively as humanly possible, making this newspaper an essential news source for people who want to know what’s going on in Lancaster County.
Both the news and opinion departments fact-check content rigorously, because we have a responsibility to print only accurate information. We take this responsibility seriously, and so we correct any mistakes when we make them, even when we’re embarrassed by having slipped up. This is one measure of whether a news source is credible — its willingness to correct its mistakes. Beware any source that never admits its errors.
Here are some more ways you can distinguish truly reliable sources from unreliable, even harmful, ones. We’ve offered these tips before, but they bear repeating.
— Don’t rely on just one source. That’s a fundamental rule of reporting — and it should be a rule for news consumers, too.
— Choose reliable sources, such as newspapers like LNP | LancasterOnline.
— Don’t share breaking news until the basic elements of the news story have been confirmed. A responsible news organization will specify if some details are unconfirmed, but less reliable sources will not. Remember that early reports, especially of large-scale tragedies, are often incomplete or wrong.
— Read information critically: Does it make sense? Is it supported by facts? Are sources cited? Does the writer have a discernible agenda? Is it clear who wrote or created it?
— Think before you share.
— Be sure to distinguish between opinion, satire and news.
— Click on the “About” section of a website to check who’s producing it. Increasingly, political organizations are launching websites that are dressed up like local news sites but have embedded political messages.
— Beware of “deepfakes” — videos altered by the use of artificial intelligence. They are dangerous because they can look and sound real.
Harvard University Library offers these additional suggestions:
— “Consider the source. Strange domain names or websites that end in ‘lo’ ... are signs you should be wary.”
— “Look for visual clues: Fake news websites may use sloppy or unprofessional design and overuse ALL CAPS.”
— “When in doubt ... ask a librarian.” (That’s a solid suggestion. The best librarians are fierce defenders of truth and accuracy.)
And here are still more suggestions from the National Association for Media Literacy Education website (which offers excellent tools for teachers):
— Guard against being gullible. “Believing everything you see and hear can create problems if the information you are consuming is partially or entirely inaccurate. It may lead you down the path of trying an unproven remedy or it could even influence the way you vote in the next election.”
— Make “conscious choices about what kind of media you spend time with and how much time you spend with that media. … Remember, not all content is created equally.”
We’re living in what has been dubbed the “Information Age”: There’s a lot of it coming our way 24/7. We may not have a choice about how much information bombards us, but we have a choice as to what information we believe and share. It can be exhausting sorting the wheat from the chaff. But we have a responsibility, as citizens, to do it.