Why Media Literacy is Today’s Greatest Need
This is a look into the research and trends of how people interact with media in the U.S., and a discussion on what can be done to increase media literacy.
Information is a precious thing in today’s world. Even more precious is having access to useful and true information. With the rise of media usage, it can be understood that there is a need for greater media literacy. This poses a problem for many, as easy-access seems to make elements like fake news and misinformation easier to trust.
Scholars and businesspersons alike have named our current age the “age of information” (Birkinshaw, 2014). Some look at the modern era of computing, the growing interaction, and utility of technology, and deem a strong person-to-computer relationship to be a necessity of today, a dependent relationship (Kahn, 2008). In this age, it can also be understood that there are certain downfalls, such that as it is easier access to information, it may also create lazier information-seekers (Birkinshaw, 2014). This is most poignantly noted in a businessman’s critique of the information age: “we are quick to access information that helps us, but we often lack the ability to make sense of it or to use it properly” (Birkinshaw, 2014). Therein the importance of media literacy stands tall in this age of easy-access information.
For one to understand the importance of media literacy in this information age, one must first grasp the magnitude of information and media systems playing a key role in every-day people’s lives. Facebook, a social media giant of today, has 1.56 billion people log onto its platform every single day, and they are growing at 36% year after year (Noyes, 2019). Switching medium, television remains a powerful staple of information in the U.S. In 2018, TV retains millions of viewers each year. Looking at viewership ratings, Fox News had over 2 million viewers, while CNN had just shy of a million, and MSNBC just under 2 million during primetime (Katz, 2019). The influence of media giants like TV networks and Facebook cannot be ignored in understanding media literacy in the U.S. today.
While these media hold immense power in viewership and users, there still remain key issues relating to the trust of information on these platforms. Studies depict a troubling relationship between news media and bias. A Gallup and Knight Foundation 2017 survey on people-media trust found that Americans estimate that 44% of the news media they consume on and offline is inaccurate (Knight Foundation, 2018). The same study tells that Americans consider 64% of the news media they see on social media to be inaccurate (Knight Foundation, 2018).
Through this understanding of the mistrust of media information, the term ‘fake news’ has risen. This term, while somewhat hard to define, can be understood as information that is purposefully or unconsciously misleading or incorrect (Wardle, 2017). A study of Facebook activity and users shows that ‘fake news’ is shared mostly by people over the age of 65 (Guess, Nagler & Tucker, 2019). This study also defines the 2016 presidential election as a time rampant with fake news, mostly pro-Trump and anti-Hillary (Guess, Nagler & Tucker, 2019). However, it was not just older U.S. citizens online sharing fake news. It can now be understood that fake news was harnessed and deployed by foreign nations to influence the 2016 elections (Kurtzleben, 2018). The fact that fake news was utilized to influence and persuade voters and had an impact on the election depicts the power and influence of misinformation. More to testify the power of misinformation is a white paper published by the U.S. Department of Homeland security, which details misinformation and fake news as problematic influencers in times of natural disasters, emergencies, and crises (Homeland Security, 2018). These factors have led some scholars to look at the influences of fake news and predict that advancing media literacy is the key (Bulger & Davidson, 2018).
Literacy is traditionally defined as one’s ability to read or write, and often noted as a measure of a population’s education (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2018). It is known that access to information allows for greater opportunity for advancing literacy. This is seen in the increase of global literacy rates from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015 (OECD, 2014; World Bank, 2015). Literacy, however, can also encompass how information is being processed. In this growing age of information, the term media literacy best exemplifies the flexibility of the concept of literacy. Media literacy can be understood as the ability or skill of understanding and utilizing media to gain or spread information (Common Sense Media, n.d.). Media literacy encapsulates the ability to create or process different media and understand its meaning. Those who study media literacy convey that there are many stakeholders in its development, namely educations, legislators, philanthropists, and technologists, not to mention everyday peoples (Bulger & Davidson, 2018). For these scholars, media literacy can be expanded through five avenues: youth participation, teacher training, parent support, policy initiatives, and evidence-based construction (Bulger & Davidson, 2018, p.3). Research backs these approaches as steps towards advancing positive growth of media literacy. A survey study done in the aftermath of the 2016 election found the power of fake news to be present in voters, and that positive engagement with information offline equated to positive combatment with misinformation online (Jang & Kim, 2018). In an Australian study which educated participants over Facebook about media literacy, researchers found that educating people about media literacy changed how people viewed information on Facebook about tanning treatment (Mingoia, Hutchinson, Gleaves, & Wilson. (2019). This study depicts the efficacy of proactive, positive education in media literacy, and paints a hopeful picture of what education and legislation aimed at media literacy advancement can do.
Misinformation, fake news, crises disinformation can be a powerful force on and offline. Understanding that the influence of electronic media is only growing and our relationships with computers are only getting closer, we must make efforts to better understand what truth is and how to safeguard ourselves from misinformation. Research shows that computer-mediated relationships have a presence in our lives and can affect the way we develop relationships (Walther, 1992). It is up to us to ensure that the relationships between us and information sources are one built on trust and truth. It is, therefore, our responsibility to advance our own media literacy and ask others to do the same.