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Students Lack Media Literacy

Critical thinking is consistently at or near the top of the list of skills that students are supposed to learn.  But a Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college found that students are appallingly naive ("Most Students Don't Know When News Is Fake, Stanford Study Finds," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 22).

It seems they believe practically anything that is published, whether online or in print.  They can't distinguish between fact and opinion.  For example, they trusted a post written by a bank executive arguing that young adults need more financial planning assistance.  He is probably right, but his affiliation or the publication in which the article appeared should have immediately raised a red flag. 

I don't know if their lack of sophistication is solely the result of their age or their schooling.  For example, just because an article is "trending" does not necessarily mean it is trustworthy.  In fact, I'm always skeptical when I see that term used.  It just means that the article has amassed more clicks than other articles.  But students regard the number of views as evidence that the material in question is worthy of belief.  In other words, popularity equals truth.

The situation is only going to get worse. "Nearly everything becomes hidden commercial propaganda of one form or another" ("Good at Skipping Ads? No, You're Not," The New York Times, Nov. 25).  This stealth advertising should be the subject of an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, but it isn't.  That's why it's so important for students to become more sophisticated.

Long before the internet came into existence, I designed a unit on the mass media.  I taught the most common forms of propaganda and how they are used in molding public opinion in newspapers and magazines.  I tried to explain that free speech is a right in this country, but unfortunately it too often does not come with commensurate responsibility.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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