The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why California’s new media literacy law for schools could backfire

The Daily Telegraph used an altered image of French President Emmanuel Macron and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on May 3. Sydney's best-selling newspaper ran the headline "President Pepé Le Pew," likening Macron to the lovesick French skunk cartoon character, after Macron described Turnbull's wife as "delicious." (AP) (Rick Rycroft/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

California Gov. Jerry Brown just signed into law a bill intended to promote the teaching and learning of media literacy in public schools, making it one of a handful of states that require such instruction.

The California law requires the state Department of Education to help teachers by providing resources on the subject on its website by the end of 2019. The decision of who should get this instruction and how would be left to school districts.

So what exactly is media literacy? According to

Media Literacy education – which teaches students to apply critical thinking to media messages and to use media to create their own messages – is a key 21st century skill. Media Literacy is critical to the health and well-being of America’s children, as well as to their future participation in the civic and economic life of our democracy.
Media literacy:

The California law was inspired in part by a 2016 Stanford University study that found most middle school students could not distinguish fact from fiction on the Internet, including distinguishing advertisements from new stories. The report was conducted by the Stanford History Education Group, and the lead author and founder of the organization has written the following post about his concerns with the law that his study inspired.

He is Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks professor of education and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University. His latest book, “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone),” was just published. His last post for this blog was a co-authored piece about the National Assessment of Educational Progress titled, “The ‘nation’s report card’ says it assesses critical thinking in history — but NAEP gets an F on that score.”

How to teach history (and how not to)

By Sam Wineburg

As a social scientist, you dream that your research will lead to changes in the world. Recently, I got to live that dream: California passed a bill to provide resources for teaching media literacy in that state’s schools, and the bill cited a study by my research team for support. I should be ecstatic, right?

I'm not. I’m worried.

The bill’s authors are certainly correct that kids need help. Our 2016 survey of 7,804 students in 12 states showed that today’s “digital natives” are digitally naive. They mistake ads for news stories. They equate placement in a Google search with trustworthiness. They’re blinded by charts brimming with data, rarely asking where the data come from.

I share legislators’ view that we need to do something. What worries me is that the solutions they propose are more likely to exacerbate the problem than solve it.

Take the dominant approach to teaching web credibility: giving students lists of questions and having them do a deep dive on a single website. Such lists, which appear as guidelines on many college and university websites, tell students to locate signs of digital dubiousness: banner ads, misspellings, broken links and the like. Students are told they should assess whether the information is current; to see whether a contact is listed; and to evaluate whether the top-level domain (.org or .com) reveals “anything about the author or source.”

Forget that kids (and the rest of us) lack the patience to slog through lists of questions. There’s a larger problem. In an age of cheap templates, creating an official-looking Web page or listing a contact are features laughably easy to game. The last time a .org designation meant something was when dial-up modems were state of the art.

Checklists offer an outdated, analog solution to a fundamentally digital challenge.

Consider the results from a recent study we conducted in which we observed fact-checkers at reputable news outlets as they evaluated live websites. We compared these professionals to other smart users: academics at three colleges and undergraduates at Stanford, the most selective university in the United States. Professors and students both, we found, frequently fell prey to the same trappings of authority: professional-looking graphics, official logos and statements of nonprofit status. They lingered too long on a single website, reading the screen from top to bottom as if it were a page of print.

Fact-checkers did the opposite. Landing on an unfamiliar site, they evaluated it by leaving it. They read laterally, zipping off an unknown site in seconds, opening a new tab (or better still, several) and investigating the organization or person behind the information before giving credence to the site itself. Knowing how easy it is to manipulate, fact-checkers avoided a site’s “About” page. For them, the Web is a web: You get a fix on any one node by going outside it and seeing where it fits in a larger pattern. Rather than clicking on the first couple of results, fact-checkers practiced click restraint, mining the snippets (the brief sentence accompanying each search result) before making a wise first click.

Just as surprising, fact-checkers consulted a source we usually tell kids to avoid: Wikipedia. But they weren’t always reading the articles — instead, they often harvested the entries for the useful information that so often undergirds them, skipping to the bottom to follow the more authoritative links that Wikipedia demands as backup to its content. They knew that the more controversial the topic, the more likely an article was to be “protected” by the various locks Wikipedia applies to prevent changes by anyone except high-level editors. They consulted the “Talk” page, the tab hiding in plain sight next to “Article,” which offers an often fascinating running commentary on the evidence for the article’s claims. Compared with the others we tested, fact-checkers arrived at better conclusions in a fraction of the time.

They learned more by reading less.

So, instead of giving kids checklists, let’s teach them to spend a minute consulting what the broader Web says about a site or an organization before diving into it — or worse, before forwarding a link to their friends. This, however, should not be taken as a plea to turn all reading into speed exercises. Close reading — the deliberate search for pattern, detail and nuance — is essential to any curriculum. But when the goal is to survive an avalanche of information, spending minutes parsing a website’s prose — when you don’t even know whether the source can be trusted — is a colossal waste of time and energy.

In the short term, let’s teach web credibility based on what experts actually do. We should teach a few choice strategies and make students practice them until they become habitual — in the words of search specialist Mike Caulfield, the equivalent of looking in the rearview mirror when switching lanes on the highway. Such strategies won’t eliminate every error, but they’ll surely take a bite out of the costliest ones.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that shoehorning an hour of media literacy between trigonometry and lunch is only a stopgap measure. The whole curriculum needs an overhaul: How should we teach history when Holocaust deniers flood cyberspace with concocted “evidence”; or science, when anti-vaxxers maintain a “proven” link between autism and measles shots; or math, when statistics are routinely manipulated and demonstrable effects disappear with graphs that double as optical illusions?

Bringing the curriculum into the 21st century won’t come cheap, but the alternative would surely be costlier.

In 2016, California voters had to sift through 17 ballot initiatives, ranging from proposals to increase the tobacco tax to repealing the death penalty. If a voter spent even just 10 minutes on each, we’d consider it an act of responsible citizenship. The challenge before us is teaching future voters to make these 10 minutes count.

Democracy’s fate depends on it.