It can happen in an instant. A compelling photo and headline pop up in your social media newsfeed and you click on it. After all it’s the news, so it must be credible, right?
As society relies more and more on mobile devises for news and information, deciding what is fact and fiction is an ongoing battle, said Mike Webb, senior vice president of communications with the nonpartisan, nonprofit group News Literacy Project. The organization seeks to educate the public on news literacy and determining the difference between credible news and false information, or what many may refer to as “fake news.”
“You have to be news literate to operate in this society,” said Webb, during an online workshop for news professionals that was hosted by the Alabama Media Professionals.
“We want people to be able to interact with news and learn information in ways that promote engaged participation and civic life,” he added. “We want them to use the standards of authoritative, fact-based journalism to decide what to trust, share and act on.”
News literacy, which Webb described as a “foundational life skill,” is the ability to determine between what is credible news and false information. Webb noted it is becoming more and more difficult to tell fact from fiction online, specifically with the increasing influence of social media.
He also noted that the term “fake news” is becoming more and more confusing. “It doesn’t really mean anything anymore,” he said.
“It can be news that is incorrect. It can be news that is false. It can be news that a politician doesn’t like. It can be anything,” he explained. “So, it’s kind of lost all meaning and often people will site it, and they have a very specific misinformation strategy for calling something fake news.”
People often share false information because of “an emotional response,” Webb said.
“It makes them laugh. It makes them angry. It gives them hope. It gives them fear,” he said. “But they don’t check it, they just see the information and they pass it on as if it is true.”
How bad is news illiteracy?
Webb shared a snapshot of statistics NLP compiled from studies focused on news literacy by the Stanford History Education Group and Pew Research, both studies are from 2019:
96% of high school students failed to challenge the credibility of an unreliable source.
Only 26% of adults correctly identified five factual statements that were presented to them.
80% of middle school students believe that sponsored content is actually real news.
Less than 20% of high school students question the credibility of a misleading photo.
Less than a third of college students can identify the political agenda of a lobbying firm.
Another study from 2018 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false news is more likely to be tweeted than true stories.
“It takes a true story six times as long as a false information to reach 1,500 people,” Webb said. “True stories rarely reach more than 1,000 people. The top 1% of false stories are routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people. It’s truly an urgent problem.”
What can be done?
To help reach young people, Webb hopes more high schools will require a news literacy course for students to graduate.
“We believe news literacy should be taught in school as part of a robust civics platform,” he said, noting that “civics has been downplayed in recent years.”
People of all ages and demographics are susceptible to poor news judgment, added Webb, who pointed out that many senior adults pass along false information because they are not digital natives and are not regularly online. Webb also noted that false or misleading information is spread on both sides of the political spectrum.
“We believe misinformation is a problem effecting blue states and red states,” said Webb, noting News Literacy Project is not about “telling [the public] what to think or give instructions on how to be a good Republican or good Democrat. It’s about how they can assess accuracy.”
Another possible solution, Webb said, is through advocating for the importance of local journalism, not just the national news. This involves helping and encouraging local news groups to build community, stay actively connected with the people they serve and cover events that matter most to them.
While studies have shown that young people value news, Webb said, most didn’t grow up with a trusted local newspaper that was connected to the community. Many newspapers no longer exist in smaller communities, at least in print. Others may not have a strong online presence. Because of this reality, young people don’t always see value in local reporting.
“With the loss of local news,” Webb said, “citizens are less likely to vote, they are less politically informed, and they are less likely to run for office.
“We think the solution starts with quality journalism.”