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  • Writer's pictureSimone Skopek

Media Literacy Training in the Age of Social Media

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

a bulletin board with news clippings
Show-and-tell news clippings on a classroom bulletin board

Long ago, when I was a child back in the 1960s, on Friday mornings we used to do a subject at my school called "Current Events," which required each student to bring a newspaper clipping – often a simple story from the local paper and do a ‘show and tell’. The clippings were then pinned to the classroom bulletin board.

Also, every couple of months, our homework was a multiple-choice quiz for school children published by one of the mainstream papers testing us on the current news headlines. The questions were really hard, and if we were lucky, our parents might help us with the answers. But even though we hardly understood the issues – the Cold War, Vietnam and all the rest, this training in media literacy did provide us kids with a sneak peek into the grown-up world of politics, government scandals, and global affairs. We may not have grasped the complex issues, but it instilled in us the importance of being informed citizens.

In the past, people generally trusted the media.

In those days, educators relied on mainstream newspapers, magazines, television, and radio as their primary sources of information, which they and the parents largely trusted.

That's because before the age of the internet, there was tight competition between just a handful of news organizations, who were forced to prioritize accuracy and reliability or suffer loss of reputation and credibility. Newsrooms had robust editorial oversight, ensuring thorough fact-checking, and adherence to ethical standards established by journalism associations. Journalists’ training emphasized accuracy, investigative reporting, and impartial coverage. Violating these codes could have serious professional consequences. Editors were responsible for upholding these high standards by scrutinizing the accuracy and integrity of stories before publication or broadcast. Additionally, politics were less polarized and media organizations were less constrained by corporate influence, allowing journalists to prioritize public interest over commercial considerations.

In the absence of modern media technology, readers relied on newspapers to stay informed about local and global events. As a result, newspapers held significant influence, and the pressure to provide reliable and relevant content was high. Journalists were seen as trusted gatekeepers, tasked with filtering and presenting news in a manner that reflected the values of accuracy and public interest.

Media mirrored the prevailing culture and interest of the mainstream audience.

This is not to suggest that the media was immune to shortcomings. Bias, limited diversity, and political and corporate influence were prevalent during that time as well and numerous instances illustrate a misplaced public trust.

One of the most significant flaws was the failure to report many scandals. Injustices like the residential schools, lingering colonialism, and apartheid were happening right under our noses yet remained largely unreported in the media. Instead, it mirrored the prevailing culture and prioritized the interests of the mainstream audience, resulting in a scarcity of diverse news and perspectives. It was an era characterized by conformity, where a uniform chorus prevailed, leaving little room for dissenting voices.

The line between journalism and punditry has blurred. Public trust has declined.

While the omnipresence of social media and the internet have vastly increased access to information and investigative journalism, they have also brought about a plethora of challenges, including blurring the line between journalism and punditry.

Journalistic punditry in the 1960s was clearly marked as ‘Editorial’ and ‘Opinion Pieces’ with pundits offering expert analysis and commentary grounded in research.

Today, anyone can become a pundit, without the need for any editorial oversight and fact-checking. The fast pace of 24-hour news channels and social media amplify echo chambers, reinforcing biases and leading to a focus on sensationalism and controversy, which compromise the credibility of both journalists and pundits.

Whereas in the past, punditry emphasized analysis, research, and insights, now it is fragmented, driven by individual opinions, which exacerbate the "us vs. them" mentality, and where dissenting opinions are demonized. While reputable pundits still offer valuable perspectives, the reality is that much of it results in a generation of readers that is opinionated but left largely ignorant of the journalistic truth and lacking the necessary skills to critically evaluate the information presented to them.

Media literacy training in the age of social media is challenged by journalistic digital chaos

One of the themes of Three Tales from the Tip of an Era is how the lives of ordinary people were deeply impacted by world news they only vaguely grasped.

In the 19th century, with the advent of cheap wood pulp paper and modern printing, a multitude of newspapers sprouted, representing various perspectives. Journalism resembled the wild west, lacking clear-cut rules and universally followed codes of conduct. While some newspapers and journalists attempted to adhere to ethical guidelines, the landscape then was a mixed bag of practices, ranging from highly professional to questionable.

It was not until the early 20th century that journalism associations and organizations began advocating for ethical codes and standards to ensure fairness, truthfulness, and impartiality. These efforts aimed to bring order to the chaotic world of journalism and establish the principles that society expects from news sources. However, in today's digital age, the world of journalism and punditry faces unprecedented levels of disregard for these rules, resulting in a state of digital chaos.

Lack of media literacy education leaves citizens vulnerable to manipulation.

To the extent that media literacy training is urgently needed, it is undoubtedly one of the most challenging subjects to teach.

While the old-fashioned methods of newspaper clippings and quizzes may have seemed dry, they did provide us kids with a glimpse into the complex world of politics, government scandals, and global affairs. More importantly, they exposed us to a society in which citizens trusted journalistic reporting.

The reasons that teachers may feel hesitant or reluctant to offer media literacy training in the classroom today are clear. Current events are almost always controversial and polarizing, especially when they involve topics such as politics, religion, or social issues. Teachers have a well-founded fear that discussing such topics could lead to heated debates, conflicts, discomfort among students and potential accusations of political or ideological bias.

As we reflect on media literacy training in the classroom then and now, we must acknowledge the formidable challenges teachers face in an era of digital chaos and information overload. The fast-paced nature of modern news channels and social media feeds has fueled sensationalism and controversy. Now artificial intelligence is adding fuel to the fire.

Stories from the past, where ordinary people were affected by world events they only vaguely understood, serve as a reminder of the historical significance of reliable journalism. Lack of media literacy training in the age of social media leaves citizens even more vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation. By incorporating media literacy into our classrooms, we can empower students to discern fact from fiction, question biases, seek diverse perspectives, and navigate the complex media landscape.

Given the challenges and the digital chaos prevalent in the world of journalism and punditry, media training in the age of social media becomes even more crucial, for without it, we are vulnerable to misinformation and manipulation.

As we shape the future of journalism and media, media literacy education stands as a beacon of hope for our children, guiding future leaders and citizens to become informed, critical thinkers who can navigate the complexities of the media landscape.

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