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Why media literacy is just the first step to extinguishing toxic misinformation

To fight propaganda and inaccurate information, lean into critical-thinking skills, says the CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company.

Why media literacy is just the first step to extinguishing toxic misinformation
[Photo: camilo jimenez/Unsplash]

On January 20, President Joe Biden stood at the steps of the U.S. Capitol and addressed America by stating, “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” The events that had unfurled just days earlier, during the January 6 attack on those very same steps, reveal what is at stake when we do not.

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But when rumors, lies, and misinformation are allowed to proliferate in our democracy, simply by being shared online or on air, I’m afraid it’s not hard to understand how we arrived here.

Where we are now is an increasingly digital world that makes it harder than ever to distinguish verified facts and objective journalism from opinion, propaganda, and even total fiction. Or, as recently termed by the Edelman Trust Barometer’s latest survey on public trust, we’re currently in an “environment of information bankruptcy.”

To understand how insidious a problem we face, we need to recognize the dilemma where social media throws gas on the burning fire that is disinformation. The speed at which information is shared offers a lesson as to why. A 2018 study by scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that it takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people on Twitter.

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Though the inauguration marks the beginning of a new administration, and hopefully a commitment to transparency and facts, it’s the work we all must do now that will determine how we move forward as a country. So how do we reject a culture in which “facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured?” I outline a few suggestions.

Lead with honesty

Start by initiating honest conversations with friends and family about how they consume information. Day to day, we rely on social media to stay connected, especially as the ongoing pandemic requires us to continue to be physically apart. However, our growing dependence on social media to consume and share information—particularly for younger people—means we must apply even greater scrutiny to the information we consume. I am routinely using my daughters’ experiences with social media as an opportunity to point out how they can exercise critical thinking about the information they look for and share. A discussion on information consumption is appropriate for a quiet and communal sit-down, like during dinnertime with children or parents.

Consider our own social media engagement

It’s just too easy to mindlessly retweet or share, unintentionally putting your stamp of approval on dubious content. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 57% of people share or forward news items they find to be interesting, but only 29% report using news literacy skills when they share them. As defined by the study, to use news literacy skills means regular engagement with news, avoiding information echo chambers, verifying information, as well as not amplifying unvetted information. The News Literacy Project, a national nonprofit education organization, recommends that before we share a social media post, we pause for 30 seconds to consider its source, its purpose, and verify with a web search to make sure it’s from a credible, standards-based organization.

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Become a local ambassador for news literacy

Critical-thinking skills and informed debate have long been the hallmark of civics classes across the country—empowering students with skills to evaluate and weigh sources of information and giving them the tools they need to grow up to be civically engaged members of our society.

But as civics classes have disappeared in favor of Common Core and tested curriculum, there’s grown a gap in many of our schools. We can reduce the influence of misinformation by making news literacy a part of the educational experience in every middle school and high school.

Create a healthy information diet

For the benefit of the communities and the audiences they serve, journalists across the country must keep their pens to their notebooks, their cameras rolling, and their commitment to facts the highest priority. Their job is not to tell us what to believe, but to stand to the side and record and document.

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As the news consumer, balance your information consumption with a variety of sources that include fact-based reporting and storytelling from reliable news sources, including local and national news outlets that adhere to a common set of ethical guidelines.

Pledge to become news literate

The events at the Capitol on January 6 must be a clarion call for journalists, educators, school administrators, and community leaders. Truly rejecting a culture in which, as our president said, “facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” requires us to look inward at our own information-consumption habits, forcing us to scrutinize our social news feeds and empower ourselves to take civic action.


Adam Symson is president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company and a former investigative broadcast journalist for local and national television outlets. Recently, Scripps collaborated with the News Literacy Project, a national nonpartisan education nonprofit, to launch the second annual National News Literacy Week in January 2021.

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