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The promises, challenges, and futures of media literacy

Digital media Mass media Media regulation Media literacy News media Fake news
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Media literacy has become a center of gravity for countering “fake news,” and a diverse array of stakeholders – from educators to legislators, philanthropists to technologists – have pushed significant resources toward media literacy programs. Media literacy, however, cannot be treated as a panacea. This paper provides a foundation for evaluating media literacy efforts and contextualizing them relative to the current media landscape.

Media literacy is traditionally conceived as a process or set of skills based on critical thinking. It has a long history of development according to different values, swinging between protection and participation. Contemporary media literacy tends to organize around five main themes: youth participation, teacher training and curricular resources, parental support, policy initiatives, and evidence base construction. Programs like these have demonstrated positive outcomes, particularly in the case of rapid responses to breaking news events, connecting critical thinking with behavior change, and evaluating partisan content.

However, media literacy programs also have their challenges. In general, there is a lack of comprehensive evaluation data of media literacy efforts. Some research shows that media literacy efforts can have little-to-no impact for certain materials, or even produce harmful conditions of overconfidence. The longitudinal nature of both assessing and updating media literacy programs makes this a perennial struggle. Because of these challenges, we make the five following recommendations for the future of media literacy work:

- Develop a coherent understanding of the media environment. With new technologies and new rhetorical techniques, existing programs should be updated.

- Improve cross-disciplinary collaboration. Media literacy is often seen as a narrow, pedagogical field. But work from other disciplines – social psychology, political science, sociology – is producing new research and findings that could greatly benefit media literacy.

- Leverage the current media crisis to consolidate stakeholders. The new attention on “fake news” could allow for new cross-disciplinary collaboration and therefore greater coherence within the field.

- Prioritize the creation of a national media literacy evidence base. A centralized and stable base of evaluation data would make more accurate assessment possible. Though there are many potential political challenges to such an evidence base.

- Develop curricula for addressing action in addition to interpretation. With the increased use of social media, literacy efforts need to be able to address user behavior in addition to interpretation.

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