Today marks the beginning of the second annual News Literacy Week, a national initiative organized by the News Literacy Project and E.W. Scripps to raise awareness about the importance of news literacy and the crucial role a free press plays in our American democracy.
As Thomas Jefferson said, a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. News literacy is all about using critical thinking skills to judge the credibility of news reports to become—and stay—informed. It teaches people how to tell the difference between fact and assertion, journalism and propaganda, and ultimately, truth and lies. It is a 21st-century life skill that could well be our best defense against the forces now threatening our democracy.
The storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 proved that our country is facing an epistemic crisis: We no longer agree on a common set of facts or even reality. Although court after court rejected claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, millions of Americans truly believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump.
According to experts like the University of Buffalo’s Yotam Ophir, who studies misinformation, we have entered an era of “alternative facts” where distrust of all information is the prevailing view, and “any argument is as good as the next.” This kind of thinking, combined with extreme partisanship, an alternate information ecosystem that peddles conspiracy theories, and social media algorithms that value engagement over truth, culminated in a literal and figurative assault on our democracy.
There are no quick fixes, but one thing is clear: We need to teach people, especially young people, to become more critical consumers and distributors of news. The misinformation that has infected our country is not going away and cannot be “fixed” by the news industry, Congress, or Big Tech companies alone.
Alan C. Miller, founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project and co-sponsor of News Literacy Week, agrees. “It’s time to confront this rising tide that threatens our democracy. Together, we must take personal responsibility for the news and other information we consume and spread to assure a future founded on facts,” said Miller, who just launched the 2021 campaign “Get News Lit Fit.”
Everyone can do their part with these three simple tips:
- Practice the “20-second rule.” According to the News Literacy Project’s Peter Adams, we should all take 20 seconds to research any information before sharing it. You can do a lot of fact-checking in 20 seconds just by opening another tab online and doing a quick Google or Wikipedia search on the story or claim. This technique, known as lateral reading, is how professional fact-checkers quickly verify information. It’s a game-changer, and it really works.
- Build a healthier news diet. We’ve all heard the saying “You are what you eat.” The same holds true for the news we consume. Like any healthy diet, we need to be more selective about the information we take in every day to prevent information overload. Pick one to two go-to news outlets that you trust and sign up for their morning newsletter and alerts. But make sure you’re also getting your “news vegetables” that include in-depth policy explanations, world news, and news about unfamiliar topics from multiple sources and platforms.
- Challenge your beliefs. Humans naturally look for information that affirms pre-existing beliefs; it’s very difficult to accept ideas that run counter to what you believe to be true. But exposing yourself to other points of view allows you to test your beliefs and, sometimes, to change them based on new perspectives or evidence. This openness to new ideas can help keep us informed about matters of great importance. In this media bias chart below by Vanessa Otero, you can see which news sources might offer some alternate points of views and check out how more than 200 news outlets rank on reliability and bias.
And most importantly, do not rely solely on social media platforms to keep you informed—their algorithms are designed to feed you information that merely corroborates your worldview. As we have seen in recent weeks and months, this can have grave repercussions.
The attack on the Capitol is just the latest evidence that fake news is toxic to democracy and that it can have very real, even deadly, consequences. It also confirms that news literacy education is more urgent than ever. It’s going to take more than a week for people to recognize that we all bear a responsibility to be part of the solution. But I believe this moment in our country’s history can be an inflection point. Let us all reject the “post-truth” and “post-fact” era and embrace our responsibilities as news literate consumers in this digital age.