June 24, 2024

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News literacy essential skill in our era of misinformation | Columns

In my favorite daydream, I am back in my college newsroom in the early 1970s, as student reporters clack away on manual typewriters and student editors tamp tobacco into their pipes and scrawl comments on sheets of dingy, gray newsprint.

“What is that?” they say as I pull my smartphone out of my pocket, and I enjoy their puzzlement as I switch it on and the screen lights up.

“This little device has more computing power than NASA’s computers,” I begin, and someone laughs harshly. But no one is laughing when I show them that my little device can, among many things,allow them to write and edit, take photos and videos, or summon and read a news story instantly from the other side of the world.

Something else might surprise them. We just marked National News Literacy Week, during which we in journalism celebrate the vital effort to teach young readers how to distinguish between truth and lies in the news they read.

The need for such an effort probably wouldn’t have occurred to most of us even a few years ago.

In the future, I tell my old colleagues, readers with smartphones – basically, all of us – will be pummeled with information from every direction. We will be told not to trust traditional news sources, such as newspapers and TVs.

We who still depend on “traditional media” will be offered fraudulent presentations made to look as if they’re produced by trustworthy news organizations or even government agencies. We will be asked to place our trust in anonymous messages written from anywhere in the world, by anybody, with any motive.

Not knowing what’s real and what’s false, we could begin to doubt the simplest truths and lose faith in the very foundations of democracy.

Doesn’t anyone try to fight back? I might be asked.

Yes: Educators, ministers, responsible political leaders – lots of people will try to warn Americans of the danger of succumbing to the drumbeat of misinformation and lies they are  exposed to every day.

The News Literacy Project will be one tool they use. The core mission of this nonpartisan, nonprofit group is to help young people separate fact from fiction as they navigate the tricky world of online information.

The project offers schools and teachers lesson plans, posters, infographics, classroom activities and quizzes. Teachers are presented methods to impart skills such as identifying a credible source, recognizing dubious “information” and distinguishing between opinions and facts.

Teachers may tap into those at newslit.org/educators/resources.

The News Literacy Project also offers free resources for adults who want to improve their ability to distinguish fact from fiction, including a newsletter that sorts through the latest and most egregious digital falsehoods. A recent issue tackled QAnon, growing global concerns about fake news, and misinformation about COVID and vaccinations.

My old friends in that 1970s college newsroom probably would have trouble grasping the dire problems the ubiquitous, uncritical use of digital media is creating. What could be better than the instant, unlimited access to information our smartphones, tablets and computers provide?

Someone who’s never seen an iPhone would probably be far more fascinated by the “Words With Friends” app than by the threat to democracy posed by a nation of easily misinformed Twitter followers. My old colleagues would probably think efforts such as the News Literacy Project were vast overreactions to theoretical problems.

But those idealistic young student journalists are today, like me, in their 70s. They learned about the digital world and social media as technology evolved over the decades, and no doubt viewed it as a godsend – at least at first. But like me, I suspect, they’re beginning to have some doubts.

Nothing new under the sun, people used to say. But the threat of mass disinformation in a free society is something new. So, too, must be the strategies emerging to combat it.

Too bad I couldn’t have warned us.

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