The end of the school year is a time of reflection for teachers: what went right, what went wrong, what will be the most lasting memory. This year, I find myself wondering how well I prepared my students for an increasingly media-saturated world.
I created a “Media Literacy” course in 1997, a logical choice for me, considering my pre-teaching background in communications and public relations. More than two decades later, the class continues as a popular English elective at my school.
The world of media has exploded since the 1990s. Legacy news organizations and the information superhighway have mutated into a mash-up of legitimate news sources, parochial websites, and fake news (including deepfake videos), all accessible instantaneously on laptops and smartphones.
It’s bad enough that videos of public figures are deliberately edited and manipulated to create false narratives. But when the president and his lawyer share such videos on social media to score sleazy political points, we have a serious problem.
And what of social media platforms? Their original allure as a means to reconnect with old friends and share personal news has morphed into a ready-made soapbox where anything goes. The “shock factor” has become the metric by which people assess information’s worth. Reading, thinking, and substantive discourse are all endangered species — if they’re not already extinct.
Take the case of Jose Simms, the man wanted by the Torrington Police Department for failing to appear in court on a variety of charges. After the police posted his photo on the department’s Facebook page, we were told that Simms informed officials he would appear if his photo received 15,000 likes. Not surprisingly, Simms’ photo exceeded that request by more than 10,000 likes.
Simms has yet to appear. Big surprise.
It’s at once amusing and sad, attracting national attention and making Connecticut the butt of jokes from places like Florence, Alabama. Bernie Delinski, a writer for the local Times Daily, used the fugitive’s ordeal as fodder for a recent column, speculating that Simms still has not appeared because “perhaps — just perhaps — you can’t always trust what you read on Facebook.”
So, to put it mildly, the need for media literacy has only grown since I started teaching it. That’s why 12 states proposed laws this year to promote media-literacy education. Connecticut passed such a law two years ago, Public Act No. 17-67, establishing a Department of Education advisory council to recommend “best practices relating to instruction in digital citizenship, internet safety, and media literacy.”
Peter Yazbak, Communications Director at the Department of Education, informed me via email that “the guidelines are now in the hands of the commissioner for review” and that Dr. Melissa Hickey, who chaired the council, “hopes to share that at the June board subcommittee for standard and assessment.”
That’s good news. Here’s hoping Dr. Hickey’s work over the past two years results in tangible school programs. But I still wonder if it’s enough. I worry that we’ve reached a tipping point in American society where the deluge of information now overwhelms even adults’ ability to make sense of it all.
Moore’s Law says that technological power “doubles and costs are cut in half every two years.” In other words, “technology innovation will not slow down but instead continue to speed up.” Question is, can the average American keep pace as Moore’s Law perpetually accelerates the delivery of news? Initial indicators are not promising.
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in Congress last year, “questions came from tech-challenged senators who seemed clueless about how Facebook makes its money and how the internet works.”
Similarly, a university study earlier this year identified an “illusory truth effect” in which adults, when presented with fake news headlines on social media, actually believed such stories even more because social media platforms act as affirming “incubators” for content.
As the 2020 elections approach and even more Russian-propagated fake news stories are predicted, a clueless Congress and a gullible citizenry are not reassuring occurrences.
Little did I know in 1997 that my Media Literacy class would become even more relevant two decades later. Clearly, it’s needed now more than ever. But as I reflect on my experiences in class this year, I can’t help but wonder if, in the grand scheme of things, I’m fighting a losing battle.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in media literacy, journalism, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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