As I listened last week to an interview of filmmaker Ken Burns, it dawned on me.
“We’re beset by three viruses, are we not?” he asked. “A year-old COVID-19 virus, but also a 402-year-old virus of white supremacy, of racial injustice. And we’ve got an age-old human virus of misinformation, of paranoia, of conspiracies.”
Regarding the third virus, misinformation, Burns added, “None of us are on the same page. I don’t wish to suggest that we all think alike in lockstep; we should not. The beauty of our system is disagreement, but we don’t get our information from the same place the way we used to. And that has had a poisonous effect on our democracy.”
Three national viruses: COVID, white supremacy, and misinformation. What if we addressed these “viruses” in the same way we have historically approached other societal scourges? As a teacher of media literacy, I’d like to propose a way to address the third virus, misinformation.
In my previous op-ed, I all but dismissed adults as a lost cause when it comes to media literacy, but Ken Burns made me think again. Why don’t we address the current misinformation crisis just as we tackled other public ills in the past? Take smoking, for example.
On January 11, 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry “made a bold announcement to a roomful of reporters: cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and probably heart disease, and the government should do something about it.”
Terry was fighting an uphill battle. The Tobacco Industry Research Council, formed in the 1950s amid the growing negative publicity regarding smoking, “began mass-marketing filtered cigarettes and low-tar formulations that promised a ‘healthier’ smoke.” It worked. Cigarette smoking remained popular; nearly 43% of American adults were smokers in 1965.
Undaunted, the surgeon general pressed on, influencing federal action. A 1965 law required cigarette packages to include health warning labels, and by 1970 cigarette ads were banned from television and radio. Private nonprofits like the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society joined the effort, producing their own anti-smoking commercials starting in 1968.
Long story short, the public information campaign was a success. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that the decline in smoking prevented 8 million deaths between 1964 and 2012, while smoking among American adults hit an all-time low of 13.7% in 2018.
It’s time we treated the disease of misinformation just as we’ve treated smoking over the past six decades.
The national Centers for Disease Control has the Office on Smoking and Health, which “helps states and communities implement tobacco control programs by featuring national and local campaigns and events.” I submit that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services develop its own “Office on Misinformation and Health.” It only makes sense, considering “widespread health misinformation can have potentially devastating consequences” and the mission of HHS is to “enhance the health and well-being of all Americans.”
The HHS Office of Misinformation and Health could work with experts at Media Literacy Now and the News Literacy Project to develop public information campaigns for libraries, public health districts and schools. It could advocate for legislation requiring websites to run public service announcements about misinformation and critical thinking. And it could work with ad agencies to develop their own hard-hitting commercials that denounce misinformation. Think, “This is misinformation. This is your brain on misinformation. Any questions?”
There will be resistance, of course. Detractors will see the campaign as “political” or an “infringement on free speech.” But honest media-literacy education can be apolitical, as I’ve argued before, and so-called free-speech advocates ignore the historic public service requirements of media outlets. What we have here, in other words, is an updated Fairness Doctrine for the digital age. In this case, the “fairness” is aimed squarely at consumers who need to develop cognitive weapons that can defeat misinformation threatening their well-being.
As Ken Burns says, misinformation is just one of three viruses spreading in America today, COVID and white supremacy being the others. So, we must also attack those other viruses vigorously. But if we ignore misinformation – if we allow this “epistemological crisis” to grow – it won’t matter in the long run what other crises we address. A United States of America as we now know it could very well cease to exist.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School. Email Barth here
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