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16 March 2018
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Media literacy has become a center of gravity for countering “fake news,” and a diverse array of stakeholders – from educators to legislators, philanthropists to technologists – have pushed significant resources toward media literacy programs. Media literacy, however, cannot be treated as a panacea. This paper provides a foundation for evaluating media literacy efforts and contextualizing them relative to the current media landscape.

The current political and media environment (both in the US and abroad) is one of high stakes for media literacy efforts. In many cases, there is a push for new media literacy initiatives. Raising awareness of media messages – how to create them, or critically engage them – would seem to be a good thing, but from an evidence perspective, there remains uncertainty around whether media literacy can be successful in preparing citizens to resist “fake news” and disinformation.

This report identies five broad recommendations for those interested in developing the future of media literacy: a) develop a coherent understanding of the media environment, b) improve cross-disciplinary collaboration, c) leverage the current media crisis to consolidate stakeholders, d) prioritize the creation of a national media literacy evidence base, e) develop curricula for addressing action in addition to interpretation.

Develop a coherent understanding of the media environment: The task of trou-bleshooting what caused an influx of “fake news” and its continuing influence has been undertaken across disciplines and sectors. These efforts need to be brought together to create a coherent mapping of the issue (see, for example, Lazer et al., 2017 or Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017). Clearly, responsibility for accessing high-quality, reliable information does not rest solely with an individual, but with institutions, technology platforms, and nations, among other actors. Situating media literacy within this complex media and information environment can provide deeper insight into how education and training can be productively leveraged to improve responsible media engagement.

Improve cross-disciplinary collaboration: Fascinating, relevant work with critical implications for media literacy is happening outside of the media literacy field. In addition to mapping the media environment, there is a need to be proactive in bringing together findings from across disciplines. Social psychology provides valuable research in decision-making, particularly how we justify choices even when we are aware they are wrong, who is most likely to overestimate competence (Kruger & Dunning, 1999; Johansson, et al., 2005), and how our minds prefer intuitive “gut feelings” over analytic thinking (Schwarz & Newman, 2017). Political science work in how we justify partisan positions, motivated reasoning (Kahne & Bowyer, 2017), how our unconscious reactions to visual cues make us judgmental of those who hold different opinions (Dodd, Hibbing, & Smith, 2016), and how rumors spread and become part of our values and beliefs (Berinksky, 2015) offer insights into mechanisms driving choices and promising points of intervention. Sociological work studying how fear motivates our choices (Glassner, 2010; Bader, Day, & Gordon, 2017) and the ways in which polarization (Hochschild, 2016; Vance, 2016) impacts our values can also inform approaches to media literacy, providing a focus on internal biases. Communication studies examining who is most susceptible to conspiracy theories (Pasek, Stark, Krosnick, & Tompson, 2015) offer recommendations for countering belief formation around misinformation (Pasek, Snood, & Krosnick, 2015).

Taken together, this work develops a holistic understanding of the structure of the media environment and how individuals navigate it. These findings can enrich current media literacy education initiatives by identifying whether and how training can best impact practice.

Leverage the current media crisis to consolidate stakeholders: The field of media literacy can capitalize on the ways in which the crisis of “fake news” has brought renewed focus to the field. There is an opportunity to build greater coherence within the field as well as be a driving force for multisectoral, cross-disciplinary collaboration. This is a time for identifying what is known and unknown about the field, and where the gaps lie. With a surge in research and discussion, there is momentum around understanding why media literacy might fail, and what the surrounding environment contributes to successful media literate practice. It is also the time to develop a rigorous evidence base to show the eficacy of media literacy education in preparing youth for the changing media environments. A robust evidence base is needed to demonstrate the value of media literacy education and to attract future resources and political support.

Prioritize the creation of a national media literacy evidence base: A major challenge facing US media literacy efforts is the decentralized nature of schooling and media literacy research. There is no main body responsible for conducting and disseminating studies of media literacy levels and media literacy education in the US. While members of both political parties support media literacy initiatives, they remain underfunded and lack national coherence. Lemish & Lemish (1997), when evaluating media literacy in Israel, reached a conclusion relevant to the current media environment in the US, that policymakers saw the media from their ideological perspective and advocated for media literacy education that would align with these ideologies. Challenges of ideology, funding, and national coherence limit the potential of media literacy initiatives in the US.

There is much that could be gained from the establishment and funding of a national body responsible for tracking media literacy efforts. Currently, the UK, Canada, and Australia lead the world in media literacy education, policy, and evidence gathering. The UK’s Ofcom provides a productive example of the features of such a national media literacy authority with its annual surveys that systematically 
measure changes in media use, education, and attitudes. Ofcom serves as a crucial evidence base for media literacy research, with longitudinal data that would be dificult to collect otherwise.

One caveat that should be mentioned is that the current US media crisis is complicated by extreme partisanship and a politically cultivated hostility toward media. Coupled with a new administration’s broad defunding of research across numerous departments and its dubious practices around publishing research in the sciences, it is dificult to picture what a government body focused on media literacy would look like in the current moment. One alternative could be a collaborative effort from those major foundations already involved in this work. Their scale and institutional stability could provide the kind of evidence base the Kaiser Family Foundation (2010) began in the late 1990s.

Develop curricula for addressing action in addition to interpretation: The reliance of social media and other networked forms of communication on audience generated content expands how individuals engage with media, presenting new challenges to traditional notions of media literacy. This new engagement includes more active participation by individuals, but also more influence from platforms and media creators, raising questions about responsibility and control. Susan Benesch (2017) considers these new relationships in light of hate speech, arguing that the single frame of deletion or “take down” of offensive content (so often prioritized in conversations with technologists) can eclipse the positive impact of seeking behavior change. This can include not only establishing efforts to prevent the posting of problematic media in the first place but also how people respond to, call out, moderate, or flag problematic content (Benesch, 2017). Other research by Chen- hao Tan, et. al. (2016) on Reddit’s ChangeMyView forum has shown how informal efforts to create this type of discursive behavior change have positive impacts — a finding which points to the value of educating on positive action in addition to accurate interpretation.