Experts offer tips on media literacy

By Maggie Young, Staff Writer

During the 2016 presidential campaign, an article with the headline “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” appeared online. People shared the titillating story hundreds of thousands of times on social media — though it has since been revealed to have been produced by a fake news site.

The spread of purposely false information on Facebook and Instagram happens daily, thanks in part to a lack of content regulation paired with the social media sites’ algorithms and cookies. These allow large companies and organizations to spread misinformation freely and target unaware individuals with advertisements and information based on their browsing history. Blind trust in social media can easily lead users to digest one-sided or unreliable information.

Media literacy, the ability to access, analyze, create and evaluate different media forms, can be used to help consumers parse through the information constantly being presented on various platforms — including misinformation they encounter partially because of techniques like those used on Facebook.

Cindy Skrzycki, a Pitt senior lecturer of English, said media literacy skills allow users to handle the way social media invades their privacy without them knowing, including learning how to manage privacy settings on different sites and ensuring they are receiving their news from valid sources.

Audiences that don’t pursue reliable news outlets, such as The New York Times or other local newspapers, can become far more easily misinformed when social media becomes their only source of information, according to Skrzycki. This increases the risk of encountering and resharing unreliable sourcing.

“If you are looking just at the things posted to you on social media, you are a passive consumer,” Skrzycki said.

According to Skrzycki, the reason information on platforms like Facebook is less trustworthy is because unlike news outlets, they don’t send media appearing on their site through an editor for fact-checking and verification the way reliable sources do.

The key to navigating information presented on social media is to read carefully and all the way through, said Maria Polinsky, director of marketing and communications for Literacy Pittsburgh, over email. Literacy Pittsburgh helps with basic education for adult populations in Allegheny and Beaver counties.

“The headline or the summary presented in social media only tells part of the story and may be presented in a sensationalistic manner to drive interaction,” Polinsky said. “We are bombarded with information and opinion, much of it conflicting.”

Readers would gain a more appropriate understanding of this presentation of information if they read the entire story behind it and assess its reliability. Michelle Lipkin, the executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, said people need to be willing to take the time to apply the fundamentals of media literacy — accessing, analyzing, creating and evaluating — and critical thinking to sift through information.

“We need to take our time with how we process information, we really need to think before we retweet and share and post,” Lipkin said. “If you’re questioning the source, don’t post it before you can really verify that this information is out there in other places also.”

Media literacy has become such an essential skill because of the amount of information readers can access, according to Lipkin. News is being provided more than ever before at a faster rate only made possible by technological advancements.

Because readers are exposed to more unreliable information than before, Lipkin and Skrzycki said media literacy needs to be taught at all ages.

“It should be mandatory that all students take a media literacy course. The skills taught in such a course prepare students for the technologies pervasive in society,” Skrzycki said. “I tell my students if you read the NYT every day, and not just skim headlines, you will be the smartest and broadest thinker among your friends.”

Lipkin said NAMLE focuses on critical thinking and engaged responsiveness to media across all platforms. NAMLE works with the Pre-K to 12th-grade age group, as well as higher-level education and community members willing to learn. It encourages learners to ask questions about the information and technology they interact with every day.

“[Media literacy education is] teaching students and learners of all ages how to make media,” Lipkin said. “From how to use social media, how to make films, how to make video content and teaching media literacy through media production skills. Then acting, how do we advocate through media, how do we respond to media.”

The need to teach media literacy skills has not been recognized by the public until recently, Lipkin said. Fake news caused a shift in focus. While the field continues to expand, so does the recognition of its importance.

“If you think about what it meant to not be literate and what it continues to mean to be illiterate, that’s what we’re talking about,” Lipkin said. “That’s the risk here, if we’re not teaching our students how to be media literate then they’re going to go into the digital world, into the workforce, into leadership positions without the knowledge they need to succeed.”