Barth Keck

As I reviewed the daily news recently, I saw a link to a Washington Post column whose headline intrigued me: “Online falsehoods plague us, but should we depend on schools to cure that ill?” 

As a vocal advocate for media-literacy education in schools, I knew how I’d answer that question.

The op-ed, unfortunately, had a different conclusion. After lauding Stanford University researchers for studying misinformation that had fooled 3,000 high school students, author Jay Mathews questioned the value of schools teaching kids how to identify such skullduggery. 

“Why should we add lessons on online trickery when we are still not giving students enough time to master reading, writing, math, science and history?” he wrote. “Good-hearted attempts to encourage intelligence in web surfing are worthy but risk being ineffective. It is like telling people they should not eat too much ice cream. It won’t work for most students and will take time away from more fundamental classroom subjects.” 

I was incredulous. Is this guy serious

Granted, in addition to the basics, Mathews made some good points about the importance of teaching topics like the Civil War and microorganisms. But he felt that media-literacy education would only take time away from such topics. He even questioned the importance of kids learning about issues like the war in Ukraine and the anti-vaccine movement. 

The world in which our kids are growing up is an overwhelmingly digital one. Ignoring that fact as we teach kids any subject is like keeping tropical fish in a tank without any water. And now that the war in Ukraine is raging – a topic, by the way, that children absolutely should understand, if at a fundamental level – we need to teach kids news literacy, posthaste. The misinformation surrounding this tragic world event demands it.

Deepfake” videos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy abound on social media, for instance. So do “re-contextualized media,” like a video of Russian paratroopers supposedly landing in Ukraine that is actually a repurposed Instagram post from 2015.

A media-literate individual will stop and use digital tools to research such content before impulsively resharing it, explains Joan Donavan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics and Public Policy. Google, for one, offers news consumers a reverse-image search with a quick right-click on the mouse. “TinEye” is a similar tool that’s readily available. But people – especially kids – won’t know about such tools if they never learn about them.

Mary Kate Lonergan, an 8th-grade social studies teacher in Manlius, New York, understands that kids are easy prey, especially now that TikTok has become a favorite platform for disinformation operatives.

“I truly feel that we’ve got to make up some ground where technology evolved too quickly, and we weren’t teaching news literacy as part of our standard curriculum,” Lonergan explains in an article from the News Literacy Project. “They don’t have the concepts to identify what’s happening.”

With Lonergan’s guidance, students learn how algorithms shape the content that different students see on social media, and they create their own content so they can understand how “intentional choices are being made — content has a purpose.” 

Two years ago, the Connecticut Department of Education adopted the “Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety, and Media Literacy Guidelines and Recommended Actions” to help schools develop similar lessons here. Since media literacy is not required, however, there’s no guarantee that the standards are being employed. Typically, it’s a school’s librarian/media specialist who teaches media literacy. But considering the shortage of librarians in Connecticut’s 33 lowest-performing Alliance Districts, media-literacy education in schools is that much spottier.

Even so, media literacy should not fall exclusively on the shoulders of a library/media specialist. Nor can every school afford the luxury of offering a dedicated media literacy class – a situation I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing since I created the class in the mid-1990s. Media literacy is especially effective when woven into existing content areas. English and social studies classes, for example, are natural settings for teaching the logical fallacies that inhibit effective reading and writing. And when science teachers explain the scientific method, they’re describing the same research-based inquiry process that professional fact-checkers employ. 

So sure, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews can believe that media-literacy education is best left for the “nonschool hours.” As a teacher who’s been in the classroom for 31 years, I say schools that ignore media literacy in the 21st century are doing students and families – not to mention our representative democracy – a huge disservice.

Barth Keck is in his 32st year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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