A Literal Problem: Why Universities Should Focus on Media Literacy


You can say literacy is no longer the issue it once was, and I would agree with you because it has simply exchanged its old hat for a new one.

The, ahem, literal interpretation of the statistic tells us the percentage of U.S. citizens who can read and write at a satisfactory level is near 100 percent. Globally speaking, we’ve seen unprecedented leaps in literacy rates in countries of all backgrounds in the past half century.

But what happens once people are empowered to explore topics with this now commonplace ability to read, particularly with all the forms of media they’re exposed to just by living and breathing in the 21st century?

Because of how easy it is to access information due to technology, we’re seeing a culture of recklessness thrive in our digital spaces. Those with malicious or selfish intent can fool swaths of the population through social media and websites that curate false news  because people are quick to spread and believe information without verifying it.

Being able to navigate the media well, according to a 2017 media study called “The Usefulness of a News Media Literacy Measure in Evaluating a News Literacy Curriculum,” takes more than the basic literacy nearly all Americans have.

“Concerns center on how the difficulty people face in differentiating reliable, credible information from unverified and biased information threatens their ability to participate in democratic life,” the study reads.

From an undergraduate researcher’s perspective, the media is the vehicle through which most people gain their information, including information about the latest research. (People often misconstrue or generalize the term “media,” but in this case, I am referring to it as both trusted and not-so-trusted news outlets.) In an ideal world, we’d want everyone to read or even have access to premier research journals, but that probably won’t ever be the case. And even if it were, the power of the media is too compelling.

We must rely on these institutions to report on the findings we uncover through academic and non-academic work, but if the common citizen is unable to navigate, trust or understand this landscape, the free flow of information will be forever in danger.

This gives rise to an important series of questions: What’s the state of the media landscape, and, more importantly, how can the average individual navigate it to inform themselves on current events and research?

The answer lies in media literacy, which is knowing what media you consume, why you consume it, where it comes from and how you can challenge it or think about it critically.

The concept of misleading news, and the public falling for it, is not new, of course. Many nations directly or indirectly have fed propaganda to their citizens to keep them in the dark about corruption. Others had strong political or business units playing the media with puppet strings, controlling the information being disseminated by donating money or sending threats to dissenters.

In many ways, we are freer now. We can access different perspectives through the internet, and we can check or verify sources through a few clicks. Information from around the world is at our fingertips. We’re also more educated and focused on equality, justice and the truth than we ever were before, both as a nation and across the planet.

You’d think that would mitigate the issue surrounding media literacy and “fake news.” But, still, we see the effects of it every day.

According to Pew, 51 percent of surveyed experts predicted the state of the media would not improve, or it would only get worse, in coming years. That isn’t a lot of optimism.

This is for multiple reasons: researchers say our brains aren’t programmed to handle the amount of technological advancements our world is going through, and the very nature of fake news (flashy links, wording that plays to emotions, confirmation bias and direct targeting) expertly plays at our human instincts.

“Whatever changes platform companies make, and whatever innovations fact checkers and other journalists put in place, those who want to deceive will adapt to them,” American Press Institute director Tom Rosenstiel said in the Pew report. “Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to.”

How do we fix this, or at the very least begin to? Academic research can point us in a possible direction.

The 2017 study mentioned earlier found media literacy courses have lasting benefits for the students that take them. Not only are they more likely to consume news, but they’re also more effective at interpreting it.

If we educate our students to sniff out bias, think critically and seek a variety of verifiable perspectives, they will not just be more knowledgeable, they’ll also help prevent the spread of misinformation. Additionally, they are statistically more likely to be more engaged and conscientious citizens. It’s a win-win situation.

Many college campuses offer or even require media literacy training for some or all students, and recent research shows it has overwhelmingly positive results. Indiana University should extend opportunities like these for students beyond those enrolled in The Media School.

Since we’re a research institution, one of our primary goals should be not only to conduct and promote our research, but also to provide our students the resources and incentives to consume research and editorially sound information with a close, careful eye.