In the era of mass media consumption, media literacy education is vital

May 4, 2018

By Lauryn Higgins
NNAF News Fellow | University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Without a free press there is no democracy.
Those words have been uttered in countless variations since the adoption of the First Amendment. From The New York Times Co. vs. The United States to the more recent Packingham vs. North Carolina, the First Amendment has been held to the flame for any and all discrepancies.
Although the First Amendment advocates for the right to free speech and freedom of the press, it’s the amount of information that is being shared from all parties involved that has led to sensory overload. Social media platforms, blogs, TV and websites interrupt our daily lives, and it has become increasingly difficult to determine what news is real and what news is fake. For those who identify with a specific political party the need to remain inside an echo chamber of similar beliefs has contributed to the toxic divide between red and blue states and has increased the demand for quality unbiased news.
The most recent Gallup poll found that of the Americans surveyed, 84 percent said news media was critical or very important to our democracy. However, the same study found that only 28 percent of those same Americans believed the news media is supporting our democracy. That begs the question: “What is the media?”
In today’s digital world, the term media has been twisted and contorted to fit a definition for any and everyone who wants to share a message. What once was an time where news came in the form of a morning and evening briefing delivered directly to you through a TV screen, the water hose of information has been turned on full blast with no drought in sight.
John Culkin, an educator, coined the phrase media literacy in the 1960s, to define the practice of analyzing and critically evaluating the news we receive every day. Culkin devoted his teaching career to encouraging fellow scholars about the importance of the media’s function in culture and warning against the pitfalls of false or fabricated stories.
According to the Center for Media Literacy, media literacy “embraces the entire process of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and creating media.” It even goes so far as to include media as “all forms of communication—from TV to T-shirts, from bill boards to multi-media environments.”
To combat the growing uncertainty of media illiteracy and attempt to blur the line between political parties from within the long-time red state of Nebraska, tackling the issue head on is the route they are taking. The term, “media literacy” does not appear in the state of Nebraska’s academic standards for K-12 schools, but their standards do call for teaching their students about accuracy, credibility and bias.
Gary Kebbel, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a founding editor of USA and, argues education is the first step in tackling this growing epidemic.
He says, “Media literacy education is now vital to our democracy because democracies can only function with truthful information reaching the voters and citizens.” He adds, “We need to accept the fact that media are so complex, and our need for accurate, actionable information is so strong, it serves democracy and improves society if we teach media literacy starting at least in the middle schools.”
And although primary schools in Nebraska are doing their part to teach students how to spot fake journalism by including tactics in their standards of learning, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is offering a course to prepare the next generation of journalists on how to prevent it.
JGEN 103, is an undergraduate course that, “allows students to explore media from multiple perspectives and learn how to analyze and evaluate those mediated messages in order to become wise consumers of media,” according to the university’s website.
The lack of media literacy is not just an issue in the state of Nebraska, but a national crisis, and Kebbel believes opening the conversation to include news literacy might be how we best combat the problem.
Kebbel says, “I think a discussion of media literacy should be broad and inclusive and should also cover news literacy. Media literacy deals with knowledge about the platform, and news literacy concerns knowledge about the content and what can happen to that content on each particular platform. Broadly speaking, media literacy starts with accepting the fact that you can’t trust everything you see, hear or read in an age where anyone can be a publisher, and people create millions of hours of content a day.”
Kebbel notes that the information we choose to read and empower ourselves with determines our decisions and the way in which we live our lives. Therefore, the information we consume must be presented with the highest level of ethical reporting and lack of bias. In order to be rigorously informed, we must be equipped with the best and most accurate news, and that requires holding the journalism we consume to a standard. The divide between political parties has polarized our country and that is evident with the increase in illiterate and mindless media consumption that only feeds our bias. Journalism is one of the greatest policing tools we have, because without it, we do not have someone holding the truth to the flame, and without the truth, we have no foundation from which to resist.
Education is vital in this fight and with school systems and universities acknowledging and helping to create solutions, the fight against news illiteracy is slowly beginning, and to many it shows the fight is indeed a worthy cause.
Kebbel says, “But I think that our desire to get accurate, actionable information will make a lot of people decide that taking some additional time to verify information from unknown sources is worth it.”