“Murder the media.” These horrifying words were carved into a door at the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, during the insurrection on January 6th. While many images from that day are seared into my memory, those words have me thinking about how we educators can prepare our students to be productive and responsible citizens when they leave our classrooms. The fact that someone would write “murder the media” at the symbol of democracy throughout the world indicates that we have a great deal of work ahead of us.
The first thing we need to talk about is how people get information. We know that social media has disrupted how citizens get their news, and more importantly, the information bubbles they reside in, hampering their ability to critically view information. Many people simply check their Facebook and Twitter feed for news rather than downloading the Associated Press app or paying for local newspaper subscription. According to a study by the Pew Research Center conducted in late-2019, “18% of U.S. adults say they turn most to social media for political and election news.” Furthermore, this same study found that those who consume their news from social media are significantly more likely to come across conspiracy thinking. For example, about a quarter of U.S. adults who get their news from social media have heard “a lot” about the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was intentionally planned by the powerful.
The disinformation campaign regarding the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential Election is a clear indication of the damage wrought by polarized media. Media figures such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity on Fox News, and radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, make a living from dancing (or outright crossing) the line between fact and fiction. The fact that so many Americans believe false claims about non-existent mass voter fraud speaks to the urgency of increasing understanding of how to separate legitimate, fact-based media outlets from those that peddle in conspiracy theories and blatant lies. While 60% of Americans believe the 2020 election was legitimate, only roughly a quarter of Republicans do, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey. While it may be too late to provide a significant portion of the adult population with the skills to be better consumers of news, it’s not for the millions of middle and high school students throughout the country.
And that very first skill must be how to gather facts.
As Yale history professor Timothy Snyder wrote recently in The New York Times, “Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.” He goes on to write that “Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.”
How can we ensure that today’s adolescents (and tomorrow’s voters) will not fall into this myth-making world? By mandating information and media literacy in public education.
Two non-profits, the News Literacy Project and Media Literacy Now, have free resources available for teachers and parents. For those who fear this will undermine independent free thought among students, this isn’t about indoctrinating a particular viewpoint; it’s about giving them the tools to evaluate sources and content. It’s about introducing them to news wire services such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and city newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post. It’s about showing them the differences between news reports and editorials, and how to use fact-checking sites such as snopes.com and factcheck.org. It’s about having them read liberal columnist E.J. Dionne and conservative columnist George Will, and explaining that The Nation is a left-leaning magazine, and the National Review is right-leaning. It’s also telling them, unequivocally, that Infowars and The Daily Caller are not credible – they traffic in lies and conspiracy theories.
These basic skills will enable students to understand when a president is lying about a stolen election, and why white insurrectionists were treated differently from Black Lives Matter protesters.
If we want to have a well-functioning democracy, students must learn that the news media is not the enemy – it’s ignorance. Otherwise, the mythmaking will continue, and we’ll have the next generation of post-truth adults capable of carving “Murder the media” into our Capitol. As Thomas Jefferson said, “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”