June 25, 2024

Saving Democracy with news literacy

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Co-Publisher, Grant County Herald

“People do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to.”

Malcolm Muggeridge

English journalist and satirist

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities,” 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire wrote. Absurdities are too common these days, and we see the atrocities mount. The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the nation’s Capitol was a vivid visual example of the extremes citizens will go to when passions are inflamed by absurdities they take to heart.

When those passions face harsh reality, those who have committed crimes based on false beliefs often show deep remorse. In the Jan. 6 case, the absurdity was that tens of thousands of votes were fraudulently cast. Robert Palmer paid the price for being misled.

“Florida business owner Robert Palmer cheered on the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 before he joined the fray,” the Associated Press reported. “Screaming obscenities, he hurled a wooden plank and a fire extinguisher at police officers trying to ward off the mob.

“Nearly a year later, Palmer fought back tears when he faced the federal judge who sentenced him to more than five years in prison. He said he was ‘horrified, absolutely devastated’ by what he had done.

“‘I’m just so ashamed that I was a part of that,’” Palmer told U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan Dec. 17, 2021.

Still, many who were on the sidelines that day wish they would have been there, believing the 2020 presidential election was stolen despite overwhelming evidence it wasn’t. Yes, there were some fraudulent votes cast on both sides. However, those amounted to a fewer than 500 based on a review of every claim of voter fraud in the six battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by the Associated Press.

“We stand forewarned: If America is to reverse its slide toward becoming an information dystopia, we must not only accept the responsibility of knowing what news and other information to trust, but we must provide the next generation with the means to do so as well,” Alan C. Miller, founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, and Peter Adams, its senior vice president for education, write.

The News Literacy Project started in middle and high schools in 2009 and has spread nationwide. Its Checkology virtual classroom now reaches hundreds of thousands of students.

Here are a few of the lessons students get through the News Literacy Program’s Checkology course:

•Infozones – Categorize information into one of six zones: news, opinion, entertainment, advertising, propaganda, or raw information.

•Misinformation – Learn to understand different types of misinformation and the ways that misinformation can damage democracy. 

•Understanding Bias – Develop an understanding of news media bias by learning about five types of bias. Learn about five ways news media bias can manifest itself, as well as methods for minimizing it. 

•Democracy’s watchdog – Learn about the historic watchdog role a free press has played in the United States by exploring investigative reports spanning more than a century. 

•Practicing quality journalism – Learn the standards of quality journalism by playing the role of reporter in a game-like simulation of a breaking news event. 

•Conspiratorial thinking – Discover why people are drawn into conspiracy theories and how our cognitive biases trick us into believing they’re real.

Additional programs are offered to help students wade through the flood of information slime on the internet and television to find trustworthy news. 

Students surveyed after taking the course showed an increased understanding of sources that show bias in their reporting and those with standards requiring accurate and truthful journalism. They also showed a better understanding of the importance of the press’s watchdog role and the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment.

“Equipped with the language to discuss the news and current events analytically, my students now rely less on their emotions, more on reason and evidence,” Bradley Bethel, an English teacher in Graham, NC, told Miller. They are better at determining the truth and less likely to be misled.

Miller and Adams write that their goal is to expose “exploitative nature of misinformation — the way it preys on our most sacred values and beliefs, using our desire for equity or our patriotism, to bypass our rational defenses and hijack our civic voices.” That exposure comes through being educated to recognize biases, ours as well as those in the sources of information we use, then applying thoughtful reasoning to overcome flawed thinking.

Democracy’s challenge is addressing the growing acceptance of false information and justifications of actions rooted in a part of our populace that has been intentionally misled for profit and political gain. Citizens need concrete news that can easily be fact checked – not assertions from shadowy characters, claims of trade secrets, and promises of providing the precise data later.

Horace Mann, referred to as the father of American education, argued that free, standardized, and universal schooling was essential to the grand American experiment of self-governance, freelance journalist Victoria Holmes writes. In an 1848 report, Mann wrote: “It may be an easy thing to make a Republic…(but) woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.”

In a piece she wrote on “The Role of Civic Education” in American democracy in 1998, Margaret S. Branson of the Center for Civic Education highlighted how essential an engaged and knowledgeable citizenry is to the future of our republic.

“Each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy,” she wrote. Those skills must be taught to each new generation.

News literacy should be a required course in every school.

It’s obvious today that we can’t just work to educate our youth. America’s adults need continuing education classes in civics and news literacy to prevent us from being divided by absurdities.

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