Time to Send News Back to School

Jaci Clement CEO & Executive Director, Fair Media Council

Jaci Clement

photo by Bob Giglione

Time to go back to school. Time to feign surprise that it’s pumpkin spice latte season. (So soon?)  Time to wonder aloud why Halloween candy is already on the shelves in the grocery stores. Time to complain about the media.

Oh, wait. It’s always time for that last one, isn’t it?

But this particular autumn, it’s a sure bet the news cycle will pretty much hold us hostage: Between the pandemic and the election, how can it resist?

In exchange, we can be fairly certain the public will return the favor by doubling down and leveling up in its disapproval of news across the board.

Survey Says
Chatter in the education field notes the growing need for media literacy in our schools. That’s been partially prompted by researchers at Stanford University, who took a 2016 landmark study and gave it a refresh in 2019. Contrasted against life in 2020, and you can see why it’s suddenly an uber-important topic of discussion.

The findings, though, pretty much remained the same: Kids can’t distinguish real news from fake. Heck, they can’t even distinguish news from advertising (unless a coupon is included). Those who are about to come of age certainly are not capable of casting an informed vote. 

And now here’s the truly bleak part of the 2019 findings: The movement inspired by the 2016 report that spurred media literacy initiatives around the nation show little-to-no signs of progress. 

But the researchers hit the nail on the head by noting “educational systems move slowly, but technology doesn’t.” 

Adjustments Needed
There’s something else, too, that should be factored in: Many of the media literacy initiatives focus on teaching children skillsets for navigating digital platforms, instead of developing their overall critical thinking and deductive reasoning. Of course, there’s a small window of opportunity here, with the fourth-to-sixth grade being the time to focus on mind development, as thinking patterns are “set” by the ages of 12-15.

News is a living chronicle of our society. Should you think middle school is too young to teach children about news, keep in mind the majority of American newspapers are written on the fourth-to-sixth grade level. The notable exception, of course, is The New York Times, which is written on a 10th-grade level. While broadcasters are often accused of “dumbing down” the day’s news, in reality, they don’t have much room to maneuver, do they? 

Despite the survey findings, media literacy efforts should be applauded for being a step in the right direction, and for laying a foundation for building better, more focused initiatives. Simply bringing the concept to the table that, yes, today’s world demands an educated news consumer is light years ahead of where we were just two decades ago, Thank technology for pushing that envelope. We should also keep in mind that many of the initiatives that have been brought forth have been at the hands of journalists, former and present. While they may know news inside and out, knowing their audience has long been a weak point inside news outlets. 

Thank our children for teaching them that lesson so effectively.
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